The stresses we impose upon ourselves and our families at Christmas, unfortunately, have become a tradition.
This month, we are going to offer you a series of articles on surviving the holidays. We will be covering such topics as how the holidays affect complex trauma survivors, ways to help ourselves, and other important topics.
In this article, we are going to introduce the topic of how the stress of the holiday season affects those living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Happiest Time of the Year?
Christmas, once a holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ has become a time of stress instead. Many families spent the day together, and children received small tokens of love from Santa. The family spent the day relaxing and going to church.
Now our society has brutally changed, with children howling in the aisles of stores for expensive toys, parents charging up their credit cards to get them and people attempting to build a perfect Norman Rockwell Christmas.
The New York Post in 2017 reported a study which had been commissioned by the U.S. Bluebush Blueberry Counsel to examine how Americans feel about the winter holiday season. Here is a breakdown of what they found.
The Pressure to Have a “Perfect Christmas.”
Forty-one percent of Americans say they work too hard to make their Christmas perfect, and this figure is even more significant for mothers at forty-nine percent.
Who can forget the iconic image of an immaculately dressed, happy family sitting around the dinner table with smiles on their faces while mom is putting a perfectly baked turkey on the table?
Americans have an inflated idea of what constitutes the “Perfect Christmas” influenced by what we have seen in the movies, on television and pictures we have seen by Norman Rockwell and other iconic artists.
That image my friends is pure fantasy. No family gets along 100% at Christmas. None. Especially those ravaged by alcoholism, drug abuse, and child abuse.
The stress leaves seventy-four percent of Americans overloading on unhealthy snacks and sixty percent feeling guilt over doing so.
How the Stress of Christmas Affects Complex Trauma Survivors
Survivors of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have a tough time keeping themselves together during the holiday season. We are bombarded by the decorations of bright flashing lights and Christmas music being played loudly everywhere we go.
For many who live with CPTSD symptoms, these inconveniences remind us of the pain and sorrow of our past involving Christmas with our family of origin.
I will also mention here that the same is true of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or any winter holiday. People feel pushed into the position of appearing happy even when they are not.
Survivors of ACEs are pushed into a series of problems including but not limited to, dread, flashbacks, fear, hopelessness, longing, moodiness, and depression. Unfortunately, the holiday season has another severe effect on some survivors, suicidal thoughts and actions.
There are some things you can do to help yourself survive the stress and emotional turmoil which can engulf you during the winter holiday season.
The Importance of Setting Healthy Boundaries for Yourself and Others
One of the tools all complex trauma survivors need in their toolbox are healthy personal boundaries.
Personal boundaries are lines you draw in the sand which tell others what you will and will not allow them to cross, in order to safeguard your emotional health. Healthy personal boundaries protect you from not only your family encroaching upon you by trying to make you feel guilty, but also by keeping you safe from other’s negative comments about you or others.
The Survivor Bill of Rights and Building Healthy Boundaries
No matter what signals you received in childhood, you matter and how you feel about your family and how they affect your emotional stability is important. So, when you are asked to visit family members you find unsafe or perhaps highly triggering, setting healthy boundaries is vital.
There is a document I wish to introduce to you called The Bill of Rights for Trauma Survivors, it is a piece written by Thomas V. Maguire, Ph.D. and published by the United States Department of Justice. Dr. Maguire’s work “Provides a list of rights for trauma survivors around personal boundaries, personal communication and personal dependency in therapy.”
I will cover this document more in-depth in a later post, however what I wanted to highlight today are some important rights all people who were harmed in childhood have today.
It is important to remember if someone violates your rights, you have the right to leave, call the police or both.
You Have the Right To be Touched Only with, and Within the Limits, of Your Consent. This includes being hugged or kissed by people you feel uneasy doing so and, of course, any groping.
You Have the Right to Act to Stop Trespasses that do Not Cease When Challenged. For someone to carry out actions when you have told them you do not wish, is an act of violence against you. You have the right to turn down physical contact and to demand loudly and clearly in front of everyone that anyone who attempts to grope you must stop.
You Have the Right to Speak or Remain Silent, About Any Topic and At Any Time, As You Wish. As adults, you and I have the right to remain silent and not answer questions which are meant to confuse, manipulate, ridicule or harm us in any way.
These subjects include unwanted feedback, suggestions or observations by any member of your family, including your parents.
Also, as child abuse survivors, we were trained from early on to remain silent. We were ordered not to speak about the horrible and traumatic things which were hurting us and to never speak badly about anyone involved.
We were told to keep our mouths shut.
We were told not to air dirty laundry.
We were told not to discuss family business.
Now that we are no longer children, we are just as powerful as those who hurt us and have the right to speak up when someone tries to verbally or otherwise perpetrate against us.
By setting firm boundaries with all in attendance ahead of time, or if need be, on the spot, we will feel empowered and in control of our safety. We also are telling those who have told us to keep quiet that we will no longer tolerate treatment of anything but respect and dignity in all our encounters with them.
This includes parents.
A Personal Boundary I Have Built With My Family
I will give you a personal example of a firm boundary I have built with my family. When we gather together, I have made it known that I do not and will not engage in any discussions about politics.
While at first glance this may seem unrelated to this piece, allow me to explain further.
I have a close relative whom I love very much but who has extremely conservative points of view. He does not believe anyone should receive government assistance for any reason, and to do so is to rob him of his tax money.
In times past, this relative would pick on me during dinner because I have been on social security disability since 1995 when I was unable to work any longer due to my mental disorder. Not only this, but I live in government housing and receive help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program.
One Christmas I decided to set a firm boundary with him. I told him the day before I attended the traditional dinner at his home that I would not tolerate him speaking badly about me any longer. If he wished to discuss politics and my receiving benefits from the government then I would not attend.
From that time, four years ago, to this day, he no longer speaks about politics of any kind at Christmas, or any other event for that matter.
Your Primary Concern: Make Sure You are Physically Safe
First and foremost, make plans to ensure your safety. It is not okay to allow others to harm you, no matter how many years you have put up with it. No one, and I mean, no one, has the right to perpetrate acts of violence against you.
Avoid the Situation. The first thing you can do to ensure your safety is to stay away entirely from family members who commit the crime of assault against each other or your person.
However, if you feel you cannot avoid your harmful family members, then take precautions and form a good plan of escape.
When violence erupts, you absolutely have the right to leave the room, step outside or leave altogether.
Make Plans Ahead of Time for Safety. Decide ahead of the holiday festivities what you will do if the situation becomes violent. Will you leave? Will you call a friend? Whom would you call? Have you got a safe way to alert the police that you are in danger?
Making plans of what you will do if you feel in danger is being proactive with your safety. This is self advocacy. This is empowerment. This is excellent self care.
Dial 911. You can dial 911 if you feel you are safe enough to do so. Leave the phone open for emergency operators to hear the chaos. The operator will call the police to do a wellness check. However, this option is only valid if you are not in immediate danger of physical harm.
If you are in danger of being harmed, please consider one of the other options listed below.
Use a safety phone app called Noonlight. Noonlight is a smart phone app which helps us when we are in a situation where we feel unsafe to call the police without anyone knowing we have done so.
The app is free (there is also a premium download available), and it allows you to press and hold a button in a situation where you feel things may be heading into violence. Then all you need to do is release the button and help is summoned to your location immediately. Even if you are on the move the app can help. So, if you are in running or being pursued, once you release the button on your phone the app will keep track of your location via GPS and inform the police of where you are in real time.
Make Plans with a Friend. Contact a friend you trust and can count on, and then make plans for you to text two prearranged words. One for “call me” and the other for “call the police.”
Having a friend call you when things are escalating may force the parties involved to grow quiet for fear of being overheard on the phone. It also gives you an excuse to leave the room or to leave the house altogether so you can escape.
Safeguarding Your Mental Health
Even if your family isn’t known for physically harming one another or you, they still can be extremely damaging to your mental health. By taking a few precautions, you can mitigate the damages to your mind done by verbally and emotionally damaging loved ones.
Limit Your ExposureThere is no doubt gathering together with our family for ACEs survivors means contact with toxic people, and sometimes our childhood abusers. There may also be people we contact during Christmas dinner who have been unsupportive and possibly shamed us for getting the help we need.
For many complex trauma survivors, Christmas dinner is a reminder of holiday violence including child abuse.
A conundrum in survivors forms when they feel obligated to be with their families who harmed them and the subsequent guilt they will feel if they do not attend.
One tip to lower your stress level is to make plans for yourself before you are exposed to your family to limit your time with them. Set the number of hours or even minutes you can spend with your family so you fulfill your role as good daughter/son/cousin, etc. but this gives you a timeframe for when you will get up and leave.
Stick to your timeframe. Even though family members may try guilting you for your leaving, without giving them a big explanation, just excuse yourself and go.
This little trick works wonders. I have done it many times myself to escape the emotional turmoil caused by being with the unsupportive and toxic people in my family.
Remember, when it comes to us complex trauma survivors establishing healthy boundaries, we do not own anyone an explanation.
Actually, we owe it to ourselves to do what is safe and good for us. Period.
Find a Safe Place to Cool Down
The noise associated with being with our dysfunctional family can be overwhelming. The greetings, arguments and shallow/false showing of love toward each other can make us feel an enormous need to escape.
All these things happen just within the first few minutes as you enter the door.
Instead of allowing yourself to drop into an abyss of feeling trapped and inundated with flashbacks, seek a quiet place for yourself. Your safe place can be the porch, the yard or the basement of the home you are visiting.
I’ll share a little secret with you. The place I have traditionally chosen to use as my place to hide in is the bathroom. It’s got a lock, I can be alone, and it makes a great sanctuary away from the bitter emotions which can flood me at family gatherings. I also use it in other circumstances where I feel overwhelmed as well.
Some Parting Words from My Heart to Yours
The holidays need not be a time when your emotional and physical health is at risk. One thing I have not mentioned in this article is that you have the right to choose other people with which to spend the holidays.
One of the most important pieces of advice my therapist ever gave me was to look for people who will be respectful of my needs and treat me with dignity.
She called people who did not do so “dry wells” because they were empty of the water I needed to maintain healthy self-esteem. She called those in my life who would treat me with dignity “wells full of water” who could quench my thirst for love and respect.
My final words to you are these.
Even though you may feel obligated to spend some time with your family of origin over the holidays, remember to seek and spend time with wells full of water. They are those who give you the emotional support you need to be happy.
Coming Next Week: Part two in our December series we will examine the reasons why we struggle during the holiday season due to CPTSD symptoms, and ways we mitigate them.