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Why the Holiday Season May Be Difficult for Trauma Survivors

This time of year can bring up uncomfortable feelings for many.

Key points

  • The holiday season may be especially triggering to survivors of childhood and family trauma, who can feel isolated during this time.
  • Due to their history of oppression, LGBTQ survivors may carry additional painful memories.
  • Survivors of trauma might need an extra push to engage in self-care during this time to combat feelings of sadness.
The holiday season can have you feeling all the feels. And that's normal.
Source: Pixabay

Nostalgia can be a painful memory of what we did not get to experience.

It’s very normal for survivors of childhood abuse or family trauma to find the holidays painful, even if they admit to enjoying some of the customs and traditions during this time of year. This is because repetition provokes memories of times that you have done this same thing before, even if those experiences were unpleasant. Advertising relies on this universal feeling to reinforce spending money during the holiday season, manipulating our experience of nostalgia to get us to open our wallets.

It isn’t just about money and gifts, however. The end of the year holiday season can be very triggering for survivors of abuse due to painful memories of their childhood and dysfunction in the family that often increased during holiday times. So many emotions are tied to gatherings and traditions, and these stressors can be reignited during this time.

For many in the LGBTQ community who grew up without being accepted for who they are, the holiday season can represent a time of isolation that reinforces what they wish they had while growing up. Even though it is much less common now, previous generations left queer people out of holiday celebrations in religious or other communities, and some LGBTQ youth were even kicked out of their homes after coming out. It should come as no surprise that the holiday season can bring about many painful memories for people whose own families and communities turned them away.

Our brain is programmed to react to current events based on our previous experiences

But it was 25 years ago,” my clients often lament to the open room. “Shouldn’t I be over it by now?”

My answer is always the same: not necessarily. Our childhood experiences shape how we view and experience the world around us, and if these experiences were traumatic, we can associate them with other relevant or similar experiences for many years after the trauma has ended. This means that if holiday gatherings were scary, frustrating, or sad during your younger years, it makes sense that hearing holiday music or seeing peanut brittle in the grocery store can bring up some of those similar feelings. Trauma is stored inside our bodies and our brains. While some have found ways to cope and move through this, for others it can never fully go away.

The holidays are a time of obligations, which can trigger painful memories

In my work with survivors of family trauma, the holidays are usually the most difficult time of year. Not only is there the stress of holiday planning, obligatory gift buying, endless cooking, and travel plans. But then the guilt sets in, because I should be happy during this time. All the holiday movies and songs tell me I should be!

The holidays are a time of obligatory actions and feelings, from survivors of abuse who were forced to eat a meal next to their abuser, to people who spent Christmas morning alone due to mom working a second job. This time of year can bring up a lot of resentment and may be a painful reminder of what others have, and that everyone seems to have more than we do.

Three tips for navigating the holiday season if you find it stressful or sad

1. Turn off the holiday music if it triggers painful memories, or even if it just annoys you. It’s OK to not listen—it doesn’t make you negative or boring.

2. Read a book or watch a movie that takes place in the summertime. The pictures of warm sand in your toes will take you away from the holiday reminders, and it can also be calming. The Hallmark channel is a constant reminder of the food we aren’t eating, the romance we aren’t experiencing, and the family we don’t have. Turn on HBO or Netflix and search for something that will have you wishing you took those surfing lessons back in college.

3. Focus on what you do look forward to. If you’d like nothing more than to leave the country for a week during Christmas, do so. If you would like to volunteer at an animal shelter and skip the large neighborhood gathering, do it. If being in charge of the baking for the office party makes you feel included in a way that is not overwhelming, please take on this role.

Ultimately, do what makes you happy. If blasting Bing Crosby at all hours brings you joy, blast away. There’s no shame in enjoying the holiday season, and many survivors of trauma still love this time of year. There’s no requirement that says all survivors have to dislike the holidays, and many find that they enjoy this time of year when they are able to spend it with their chosen people. But if you feel more anxious or depressed during this time of year, please know that you are not alone and that it makes sense. Take extra time to do what you need right now.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS
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