If you’ve lived through a traumatic childhood or domestic violence situation, you may not know what it feels like to feel jolly. Some of us feel a sense of dread the closer it gets to the holidays as the holidays approach. The trauma triggers are different for everyone, but we can all deal with them similarly.
It has been thirty-five years since I left an abusive relationship, and I still have nightmares. The holidays were the worst. I am not alone. Many people living in abuse and left their abusers still experience trauma triggers related to what happened during an abusive episode.
As an adult child of an alcoholic navigating my way through the world in a healthy relationship and a functional household today, I can still feel my shoulders tense as the holidays approach. No matter how much time has gone by, the holidays still present triggers for me. The turbulence and disorder that were all part of my past holiday seasons come flooding back unwillingly.
What Is a Trigger?
A trigger is any event or object that reminds you of, or subconsciously connects you to, an aspect of your abuse. Sometimes a smell or sound can trigger a past traumatic incident. Triggers cause you to behave in the same way you did during or immediately after a traumatic event. Your brain does not differentiate what happened then from what is going on around you now. So, you may act in a way that perhaps you don’t even understand. You may find yourself having sudden bouts of crying and not knowing why. You could become nauseous or tired. For me, triggers come first in nightmares.
If you have CPTSD, you may experience trauma triggers to greater degrees or more often than those without CPTSD.
How Do We Handle Triggers?
Recognize your behavior or physical symptom as the result of a trauma trigger. Perhaps it seems simplistic to say to yourself, “Something triggered me, and now I feel this way.” Your brain needs to hear it, and it would help remind your brain that where you are now is more important than where you were then. Do something that will make you feel more safe, calm, or confident.
1. Focus On Your Five Senses
Hearing and smell: Listen to your favorite music. I listen to smooth jazz, with my favorite candle smell filling the air.
Sight: Watch movies that make you feel good or laugh.
Touch and taste: Snuggle with a soft blanket and a cup of your favorite hot drink like hot chocolate and apple cider.
2. Give thanks to where you are right now in your life
Start at Thanksgiving. Sit for a minute with your thoughts. Look around and notice five things from your environment (think five senses; sights, sounds, textures, smells, or taste). Ground yourself into the here and now and think of three things to be grateful for.
3. Go back to your basics
Listen to positive affirmations—music, a daily meditation—anything to keep that tape of positivity playing in your head. Purchase a pocket-size affirmation book to always keep with you. I use a daily meditation for Adult Children of Alcoholics.
Listen to positive podcasts; there are so many now for learning, for laughing, or just for listening. Find a couple that you like, download some episodes, listen to them while driving your car or doing your errands, or just for an extra boost.
4. Goodbye to Guilt
Be realistic. The holiday will not be perfect. Learn to say no. Identify the people, places, and things that are healthy and useful in your life, and discard those that are not.
Choose which celebrations you attend. The holiday celebrations are a matter of choice, and you have permission to say no to protect yourself from inner turmoil.
5. Take a Walk in Nature
I always turn inward. I go for a walk even when it is cold out. Nature always calms me and makes me think of life and what matters to me. Studies have shown that nature reduces blood pressure, lowers cancer risk, and lifts people’s spirits.(2)
6. Buy Gifts for Others in Need
It always makes me appreciate what I do have, what I didn’t have as a child. My go-to is usually a domestic violence shelter, and I purchase items for a couple of families in need. Find a cause you are passionate about and gift it to them. It doesn’t have to be much. Giving always makes me feel better and appreciate what I do have.
Join the flow with holiday shoppers and when you are buying gifts, treat the wounded inner child in you to a treat.
7. Practice Self Care
Be Gentle with Yourself. Get enough sleep and exercise—practice Yoga. Learn how to breathe in and out and release the stuff that no longer works for you. I put a stickie note on my bathroom mirror that says: I am safe, I am strong, I am loved, and I live with peace.
8. Journal your thoughts and feelings
Keep a journal with you when feelings crop up, so you have somewhere to process them.
Meditation not only changes the brain, but it changes our subjective perception and feelings as well. It offers emotional balance, increased focus, and reduced anxiety. *(1)
10. Start a New Tradition
It’s interesting to see what other countries do for the holidays. You may want to try one.
- Meditation: In-depth. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm. Accessed Jan. 5, 2017.
- “Nurtured by Nature” Psychological research is advancing our understanding of how time in nature can improve our mental health and sharpen our cognition https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/nurtured-nature. Accessed Nov. 5, 2021.
Susan Frances Morris is the author of The Sensitive One, a memoir dealing with childhood trauma, abuse, health, and healing. She holds a bachelor’s degree in nursing and was a practicing nurse from 1989 to 2011, primarily in Women’s Health. She was raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, the second oldest of seven siblings with two sets of twins. http://susanfrancesmorris.com