Trauma and the Holidays: 3 Practices to Reclaim Joy

The holidays can be tough for people who have lived through trauma. The holidays come with so many reminders, so many triggers. You can start your day in an Ok mood and then suddenly Nat King Cole is singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” on the radio and you are catapulted onto the way-back-machine.  Or the smells of baking, or the sights of lights, or the stress and pressure of trying to get everything done or make everyone happy.

The very nature of any holiday is the strong connection to ritual and tradition—to connect the past to the present and have a bridge to the future—all through the repetition of the things we do, what we eat, the songs we sing, the way we spend our days. If our holidays were happy ones, we can instantly tap into that happiness from the past and draw on it like a deep well. But if holidays were deeply unhappy, violent, or grim—then the reminders can bring us right back—even if our current situation is more peaceful. The power of holiday and tradition—to create a time-warp event of ‘once upon a time’ can mean that at the holidays—it can feel impossible to unhook from past traumas even if they have receded at other times of the year.

Essentially, the way to heal the holidays is to create new connections in the brain and body. Your brain has some very well worn paths and connections and what you need are some new connections and, frankly, some new unrelated memories.  Here are some practices to jostle the old connections, make some new ones and stretch into new memories. Not only can you survive the holidays, you might even heal stronger through them.

1.     Create a new tradition. A brand new tradition. Something that you can connect to and doesn’t connect to your past—or if it does, it just taps in to something positive. In my 20’s I started baking Christmas cookies with my best friend in the tiniest of apartment kitchens with a loaned Spritz cookie press from my 80 year old landlady. Twenty-five years later, we are still making our cookies. Those cookies were such a wonderful handhold into a new future of holidays. They gave me a way to connect to Christmas, and through giving them away, connect to other people. But there are so many ways to create new traditions. I have had clients who joined choirs, or started their town’s Luminaria event. Sometimes doing something for someone else made someone feel better, like the woman who started a Toy drive for a hospital. And sometimes it didn’t even seem related to Christmas—one client created a tradition of a movie marathon with her family—each year they picked a different theme—Star Wars, or James Bond—and played with the theme as much as they could. Be creative! New traditions help you tap into a new joy and they give you something to look forward to.

2.     Be Mindful of living in both past and present. In a previous post on Holidays and Trauma I referred to it as holding both. Stop expecting yourself to ‘get over it’ and just let yourself live in it as best you can. Mindfulness is the best antidote to abandoning yourself. If you can stay mindful and actually stay with yourself, you paradoxically are creating a new experience for old memories. Trauma is about feeling helpless. Mindfulness is about being able to stay with whatever comes up—so in that moment you are not helpless, you are making a conscious choice to stay. It is powerful medicine against helplessness. When you feel yourself getting triggered by the past, take a deep breath and look around. What can connect you to the present? What can you take in and see as beautiful, as peaceful and joyful? It doesn’t have to be big. It can be the way the rain is sparkling. It can be the cat sleeping. Any image or sound that helps your brain feel joy or peace in that moment will do. Maybe it’s noticing something you are grateful for. Whatever the new, positive thought is, it will interfere in the old connections between the old trauma and the trigger—it will build more muscles in connecting to the world you are living in now.

3.     Take a break. Remembering that trauma is connected to the feelings of terror and helplessness, it is so important to remind yourself that the trauma is over, you survived it, and it is the present: you are no longer subject to living in a terrifying or helpless situation. The problem with trauma is that it can create that old experience in the present in your body and brain—it’s what I call an emotional flashback. I sometimes describe it as the feeling of feeling like you are drowning in a pool—thrashing around wildly—only you have forgotten that the water is only 3 feet deep. You can actually put your feet down and stand up. So in the midst of holiday trauma triggers—help yourself remember that it is the present by letting yourself take breaks: Just walk outside for a moment and take a deep breath of air. Or, listen to music that doesn’t remind you of the holidays, or read a book about something entirely different. Distract yourself with a stupid old TV show for an hour. Fix that shelf or replace the batteries in your household appliances. Change the conversation to something that helps you connect to your self in a way that helps you feel grounded. And if you are worried about what people will think if you need to leave the conversation --offer to wash the dishes or walk the dog, or read the kids bedtime stories—and they will be grateful. The main thing is that you stop the action for a moment and give yourself a break.

To fall patiently...

This is what the things can teach us: to fall patiently, to trust our heaviness. Even a bird has to do that before he can fly
— Rilke

I wish had met Rilke: I think he would have a lot to say about healing and growth because his poems really get to the heart of healing and growth. That heaviness, that wobbly-ness- which he somehow elevates to a sacred place. It’s so much more comforting to feel like your wobbly-ness is sacred than to feel like it's some character flaw.  It’s amazing how much we all want solid ground, the solid of experience of knowing exactly where we are. And yet, the very definition of growth and healing is to move into a new beginning—a new space that you have not yet inhabited.

Initially it can feel like those first tentative steps you take on ice in the winter where you tap your toe out ahead of you, unsure of whether to put your full weight on your feet. Will this new ground hold me? Can I really put my weight into this new way of being?

Recently I was on a walk to the woods and I came upon a Goshawk in a dead tree. I was captivated by his regal stance, and stood watching trying to keep my dog still. When I started to move it seemed I caught the hawk off-guard and he leapt off the tree and instead of launching up, he fell for a bit and then caught his stride and began to fly. Like Rilke tells us, sometimes you need to fall before you can fly.

The big myth about healing from trauma is that it is some sort of linear process where you are ‘done’ with that. Whatever that is for you. I am not saying things don’t change, or that you don’t really shift in how you understand and approach the world. But I can say that there are plenty of times when you think you are just going to solidly launch from your branch and instead you must fall patiently.  Yes you won’t know when it will happen, but you will eventually catch the wind under your wings.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2016

It's never too late: Old dogs can heal

I have heard so many people say things like, “It’s too late for me to heal what happened” and “There’s no one who could help me” or “I’m too old to get help for this.” These statements are some of what has motivated to write about trauma and to create a better understanding about healing from trauma.

I believe it is harder to heal from trauma the older you are—but not because you are old. As I have described in an earlier blog, repeated trauma or long term trauma is not one trauma. It is really 3 forms of trauma. The first form of trauma is the trauma that you experienced—the ‘what did happen.’ The second form of trauma are the protections –the defenses—the way of being that you created to survive the trauma. These protections become a part of your personality, your way of being, your habits and routines. And the third form of trauma, the unseen impact of trauma, is what didn’t happen- it is all the things you didn’t or couldn’t do or learn because you were living in trauma. It is the experience of peace and calm, it is where your attention could have gone if it weren’t focused on survival.

It is harder to heal from trauma when you are older not because you are old, and an old dog can’t learn new tricks, or there aren’t good people to work with you and your trauma, it is harder because you have lived for so much longer with the protections and defenses. You have lived so much longer behind your wall—and it feels impossible to imagine any other way of being. It feels impossible to imagine being outside of the prison with the wind on your face—in a world where you don’t know the rules. Healing from trauma means letting go of these protections—living without them—for moments at first, and then gradually for hours, days, months. And it means risking new behavior, risking experiencing the ‘what didn’t happen.’

And I describe it as a risk on purpose. Living with your old protections, living as if the trauma could happen at any time again—that feels safe.  There was Japanese Lieutenant Hiroo Onada who held out fighting on a Philippine Island from 1944 until he was finally found and relieved of his duties in 1974. 1974. The war had been over for decades. But continuing to fight the war sometimes feels more sane. It makes the war more worthwhile. It provides hope for a different outcome. It can be so hard to let go of the war knowing that when you do, it is really over. It happened and you can’t change the outcome. Surrender really is surrendering the hope for an outcome that can’t happen.

Leaving the world of trauma, of your protections, where you are always ready to go back, is a big move. And anyone’s hesitation about healing, about wondering whether it’s worth it, or whether they can handle it, is a valid worry. It isn’t easy. It involves a lot of hard work, and it involves a lot of grief. Only in the quiet after the war can you begin to remember and feel what it felt like during the war. When you finally start living without your protections, when you finally start risking the new experiences—really, only then, can you fully feel what it felt like to live through the trauma at all. And many people catch glimpses of this grief and think it would be impossible, think that they wouldn’t survive it, they catch a glimpse and they say, “No way.”. But they forget the most important thing: they already have survived it. The grief is old. It is painful, but it will go.

There’s no magic in healing. You won’t become someone else. But you will get to experience yourself without the emotions of survival running your life. You will get to see your life not just in a past-perfect tense of what happened and what might have been, but also in the present, and the future- of what might be. No, it’s not easy to surrender your island of trauma, the safety that you know, to risk a different safety, a peaceful safety decades later. No it’s not easy, but you were strong enough to survive—which means you are more than strong enough to heal.

  © Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD 2014



Holidays and Trauma: Holding Both

1970  d         .jpg

Holidays are rituals. They are traditions. They are anniversaries. And if you have experienced significant loss or trauma, holidays are an archipelago of memory and loss. Holidays come embedded with reminders and triggers and explosions of memory. That’s exactly what tradition and ritual are supposed to do. But holidays, unlike many ordinary days, are designed as full sensory experiences—they hit our sense of smell, our sense of taste, what we see, the songs we hear. It may be 2016, but to your nose, or your tastebuds or your ears—it’s suddenly 1943, or 1969, or 2003. This time travel at the holidays is true for everyone, not just for people who have experienced trauma, but it is faster for trauma survivors because the memories connected to the songs, or tastes or smells were more frightening and highly charged. They left a more solid imprint.

For many trauma survivors the problem is one of presence: it seems at the holidays you live in two worlds even more than you usually do. The world of the present and the world of the past seem to constantly collide, with the past just as present at times as the present. Perhaps the memories would be easier to hold if there wasn’t the constant pressure to not only hold them but to be happy the whole time. It’s this awful juxtaposition between the memories you hold and the outside expectation of fun. You are sitting at a beautiful meal in the present and you are hearing the violence in your head from fifty years ago. Yet no one at the table knows.

For people who have experienced significant loss, the problem is one of absence. Every holiday marks another occasion where someone or something is missing. It can be a time when the loss is felt so keenly, when you count how old they would be now, what they would think about this holiday, when you see the world without them in stark relief. You feel badly for enjoying something without them. And of course for many people—both are true—the presence of the trauma and the absence of loss. Soldiers who know where they fought during a previous holiday and the troops who didn’t come home with them.

So I say to all those who struggle with trauma and loss at the holidays—you are not alone. Like the tale of the mustard seed, it is unlikely you could sit at any holiday table in the world without finding a fellow pilgrim on the journey of healing—either from trauma or loss. The cure isn’t the modern notion of ‘moving on’—the cure is a more difficult task of holding both. You see when you try to just ‘move on’ –then its either the past or the present—you are jostled involuntarily from one to the other. But if you can build the muscles to hold both –hold that both the past and the present are true—then paradoxically the present can become more real. Holding both allows you to hold your feelings from the past and your feelings in the present as real and true. Holding both is not so much an effort as a softening. You breathe, you acknowledge, you hold, you sit. You don’t do anything in particular, but you don’t run away from yourself and you don’t expect yourself to feel differently than you do. Holding both allows an integrated whole memory to begin to form out of the colliding worlds, out of absence and presence. So start slowly, be kind to yourself as you begin this new practice, and as you feel more solid, reach a hand to someone who is just beginning.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2016