10 Ways to Handle Trauma Triggers During the Holiday Season
Sometimes, it's hard to feel truly jolly. Here are simple ways to cope when something triggers you
If you lived through a traumatic childhood or grew up in a dysfunctional household, you may not know what it feels like to feel truly jolly. With the holidays approaching, that lack of happiness can become starker.
As a child of an alcoholic parent navigating my way through the world in a healthy relationship and a functional household today, I can still feel my shoulders tense as Christmas caroling begins. No matter how much time has gone by, the memories of my turbulent childhood come flooding back.
I am not alone. According to the National Center for PTSD, 7 or 8 out of every 100 people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men, and about 15 million adults will experience PTSD in a given year.
Trauma triggers can happen much later in life, well after the trauma has happened.
Research from 2018 shows the relationship of childhood trauma to C-PTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), which are the long term effects of experiencing traumatic events.
What Is a Trigger?
A trigger is any object or event that reminds you of, or subconsciously connects you to, an aspect of your past trauma. Sometimes just a smell or sound can resurface a past traumatic incident. You may find yourself having sudden bouts of unexplained crying. You might become overwhelmingly nauseous or tired. Triggers can cause you to behave in the same way you did during or immediately after a traumatic event. Your brain cannot differentiate between what happened in your past and what is going on around you currently. So, you may act in a way that perhaps you don’t even understand. If you have Complex PTSD, you may experience more frequent or deeper trauma triggers than those without C-PTSD
When I’m triggered, for example, I get certain nightmares. I find myself drowning with no one around to save me. I am on the dark ocean floor when my breathing slows and becomes shallow. As I am about to take my last breath, I wake up —shaking and crying out.
How You Can Handle a Trigger
You begin by recognizing that your behavior or physical symptoms are the result of a past trauma trigger. It can be as simple as saying out loud, “Something triggered me, and now I feel this way.” Your brain needs to hear that you are now safe and in a different place than you were back then.
You can also take an action that will make you feel safe, calm, or confident. Daily meditation works for me.
Here is my personal list of ten different ways to stop a trigger from hijacking my mind to a place I don’t want to go.
- Ground Yourself In the Now By Focusing On Your Five Senses
Focus deeply on the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes of your current environment. These will center you to the here and now.
Hearing and Smell: Listen to your favorite music (I like smooth jazz). I also light my favorite candle so a pleasant, comforting smell fills the air.
Sight: Watch movies that make you feel good or laugh. I enjoy anything starring Will Ferrell.
Touch and Taste: Snuggle with a soft blanket and a cup of your favorite warm drink, such as hot chocolate or apple cider.
- Give Thanks For Where You Are Right Now In Your Life
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). Sink yourself into the here and now and think of three things you are grateful for.
- Focus On Positivity
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 and keep it handy. I use a Daily Meditation book for Adult Children of Alcoholics.
- Surround Yourself With Positive Podcasts
There are so many resources out there now for learning, laughing, or just for listening. Find a couple of podcasts that you like, download some episodes, and listen to them while driving your car or doing your errands, or just for an extra boost. Two that I like are Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us and Gretchen Rubin’s Happier Podcast.
- Say Goodbye To Guilt
Be realistic; these holidays 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 to attend. Holiday celebrations are a matter of choice, and you have permission to say no to protect yourself from inner turmoil.
- Step Out of Your Head By Giving To Others In Need
Every holiday I purchase items for others in need. Some suggestions:
Salvation Army: Helping families in need.
Joyful Heart Foundation: Ending sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, supporting survivors’ healing.
YWCA: Empowering women.
It always makes me appreciate what I do have and keeps me from ruminating on what I didn’t have as a child.
- 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 sticky note on my bathroom mirror that says: “I am safe, I am strong, I am loved, and I live in peace.”
Join the flow of holiday shoppers and when you are buying gifts, treat the wounded child in you to a special item.
- Journal Your Thoughts and Feelings
Take a portable journal with you so that when feelings crop up, you have somewhere to process them. Remind yourself that you will get through this —“this too shall pass.”
Meditation not only changes the neuro pathways in the brain, but it changes our subjective perceptions and feelings as well. It offers emotional balance, increased focus, and reduced anxiety.
- Start a New Tradition That Is All Your Own
Start something new. Anything. I found a local café a few years ago that reminded me of Paris. I started a tradition of going there every Christmas Eve, by myself. I treat myself to a yummy hot chocolate and think of all the people and things I am grateful for. I always head out the door with a renewed sense of direction.
Enjoy the time with people in your life who bring you joy and see you for the real you!!