Trauma and the Holidays

By Cailin Crosby

The holidays can be a bustling, stressful time. And for those with histories of trauma, the excitement and activity may be overwhelming.


The sights, sounds and smells of the season have the ability to transport us back to specific moments in our lives. For some, that may mean being brought back to past experiences of trauma. While we cannot always prevent unwanted feelings and memories from coming up, we can control how we attend to and care for ourselves in those moments. Continue reading for suggestions on how to support your own or a loved one's healing process over the holidays


Hurdles of the Holidays

The holidays are often charged with emotions and sensations that are hard to avoid. Not to mention, they involve a societally accepted period of indulgence – presenting additional hurdles for those struggling with common responses to trauma such as disordered eating and substance use. The season brings with it an unspoken understanding that we should feel joyous, grateful, and happy throughout; which can leave those who don’t feeling isolated or somehow flawed. 


As you navigate your own challenges over the holidays, you may feel mixed emotions about certain festivities. For instance, for those who have experienced trauma as a result of the death of a loved one, the holidays can be a painful reminder of that loss. There may be a conflict around your desire to participate in traditions that allow you to feel ‘normal’ or temporarily distracted from your grief while also feeling guilt or sadness for doing so. For those with childhood or relational trauma resulting from your family of origin, there may be a conflict between your desire to connect with and be close to family, while also acknowledging the necessity of setting certain boundaries.

An important part of healing from trauma is understanding what trauma is and understanding your own responses to it. Trauma may result from any experience that leaves you feeling profoundly unsafe or deeply distressed; this could be a one-time event, or repeated, ongoing experiences.


Trauma can disrupt our ability to regulate our emotions, self-soothe, or see the world as a safe place. Cultivating an understanding of the adaptive behaviours you’ve used to cope with trauma can be especially helpful when entering into a season that may evoke painful feelings or present challenging situations. And should you choose to, letting someone else in on what you’re going through may help you to advocate for the support you need from those closest to you.


We can’t anticipate or control all the hurdles and challenges that we will encounter this holiday season, but below are some suggestions on how to help you cope.


Taking care of yourself

You’re allowed to set boundaries


This time of year there are lots of expectations – expectations from others, as well as your own around what you “should” and “shouldn’t” be doing: “I should be spending more time with family”, “I should be having fun”, “I shouldn’t leave the party early”. Consider making choices from a place of self-compassion and understanding. Try to pay attention to what you need. Establishing healthy boundaries by tuning into your needs is an important part of healing from trauma. 


Establish safety where you can


If you know you’re going to be spending time in someone else’s space over the holidays, consider beforehand how can you create a place of safety within yourself or with another person. This may be having a positive memory or image to recall – a safe space to envision and go in your mind. This might be using a sensory grounding item – a small object that you can keep in your pocket and hold onto when you feel overwhelmed. This could also be a safe person who you can communicate your experience with.

Practice grounding


Grounding helps remind you that you are in the present – that you are safe and not back at the place of your trauma. If you begin to feel overwhelmed, look up. Look around. Name and describe objects or furniture you can see in the room (e.g., soft grey couch, small green plant, bright yellow curtains). Notice the feeling of your feet on the ground or your back pressing up against a chair.  

Create new traditions


Consider creating new holiday rituals that are meaningful and feel good to you. This could involve others or be just for you. When coming from a place of self-understanding and self-compassion, rituals can be grounding and cathartic; what new traditions do you want to establish and take forward with you?  


Listen to your body


Our body holds a wealth of information about what we’re feeling and experiencing. We just need to practice paying attention to it. When you have a quiet moment, allow yourself to pause and check-in with your body. Are you feeling tension? Where? Notice what happens when you attend to the tension, take a breath, and allow it to release. Try this out anytime it crosses your mind! Allow yourself to notice the different feelings of tension and relaxation throughout the day.


Putting it all together

The holidays can be hard. But they can also be energizing, restful, and fun. The two don’t need to cancel each other out. You can fully participate in and enjoy whatever aspects of the season you choose to and still recognize that it is difficult for you. The key takeaway here is to remember to check-in with yourself; notice what’s coming up for you, and try to make decisions from a place of self-compassion and understanding – your mind and your body will thank you for it! 

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