The holiday season is a busy, chaotic time for everyone, even under the best of circumstances.
After surviving trauma, the Holidays can become intolerable to suffer through.
I do not observe holidays in accordance with my personal beliefs. This may also be the same for some of you. However, many of the following coping skills can be used in many different situations in our lives where large groups of people or familial customs / traditions may be involved – and quite possibly requiring us to face people, places, and events that were central to the trauma we find ourselves still reeling from when the necessary conditions required to unsettle us are present.
The most important thing to remember in any situation is that your emotional well-being and personal safety trumps any expectations – whether they are internal or external – on your presence and participation. You always retain the right to exercise control over what you expose yourself to, the duration of time, the places you go, and the people involved. As such, it is best for you to set aside some time in a quiet space where you can consider all the things that trigger you, things that make you feel safe, and how well each of your coping tools function in keeping triggers under control. You are under absolutely no obligation to force yourself into a position where either your personal physical safety or your emotional well-being is at risk of being violated. It is possible when forcing yourself into these situations you know to be triggers to re-traumatize yourself and lose vital work you have put in toward your healing.
Once you have faced and assessed the reality of your triggers and areas of comfort, you should use these when planning or accepting/declining invites to anything from birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, company parties, sporting events in large arenas, and even shopping in crowds. Things you should take into consideration when deciding how much additional stress you can handle exposing yourself to include how you handle unusually large crowds, if the event is located somewhere you experienced trauma, if people responsible for your trauma may be present, and if the event may include a mix of circumstances that you associate with the source of your trauma such as a customary practice on the holidays where you experienced trauma. You should also bear in mind that things people view as harmless but can be an emotionally violent trigger for you can include songs, commercials/movies/shows, specific scents, cooking certain foods, or things that may have been used against you as weapons or to convey threat of harm.
Here are some examples of things we can do any time of year, including the holidays where we find ourselves facing events that carry risk of trigger:
- If you are invited to a gathering of people to celebrate anything, have a private conversation beforehand with the person organizing the event and share your concerns with them. Explain specific things you struggle with emotionally and at least make them aware of your triggers so if you need to withdraw for a period of time or leave, they do not take offense and confront you about “being rude,” because confrontation can be one of our many triggers. Let them know key things that you find difficult to handle, perhaps like being around a lot of people you don’t know or being around too many people. Find out some things they have planned over the course of the event so you can prepare for possible triggers ahead of time.
- If you are invited to an event where there are mainly people you do not know, ask if it’s possible to bring a “safe contact” with you so you have someone with you to ground your mood and help be a source of comfort in the environment of the unknown. This person should also be aware of your triggers, how they can help calm you, and when you just need to leave.
- If you are hosting an event, consider keeping it small, inviting only those you feel comfortable with. Plan meals, games, etc in a manner that takes your personal triggers into consideration so you can minimize risk of flashbacks and resulting panic attacks.
- When you enter the location, look for an area you can go that is more open and not as packed with people if at all possible. Crowded rooms and choosing the corner are not healthy options in this situation. Feeling boxed in will only heighten your stress when a trigger hits, because you will feel trapped. Try to position yourself somewhere that allows you the freedom to get up and move easily should you feel like you need to “escape.” Many of us also choose to sit with a wall behind us so we can be generally aware of where others are around us and we can avoid being startled by people coming up from behind.
- If you decide to attend an event that is either held at a place you endured trauma or that will include people associated with or responsible for your trauma, always remember that it is best to limit your involvement, because prolonged exposure to these environments and people will only continue to heighten your stress and trigger a panic attack. You have complete say who you speak to and how long you will stay. It is best to determine how long you still stay ahead of time, and once you have arrived stay committed to your promise. If you need to excuse yourself for a few minutes to calm down, do so without feeling like you no choice but to ride it out. If you feel uncomfortable and feel the urge to leave earlier than you planned, do so without apology.
- If you decide to stay for the duration, perhaps come prepared with a few coping tools in case you find yourself wrestling off a severe trigger. Examples of things you can use are a journal to write, an iPod/MP3 player with music that helps calm you, keep a small object in your hand and run your fingers over it as a small distraction to help keep you calm. If this isn’t possible and there are children present, maybe you can sit with them at a table and color or play a few silly games with them. Not only will it help distract your racing thoughts, the children will also feel special to have an adult take time out and include them, even if it is in this small way.
- If you have trouble in large crowds and go shopping, it would best for you to choose times that are typically off hours. Slower times generally tend to be Monday and Tuesdays and during the week while many people are at work and school. Weekends and evenings can be difficult, because this is when many run errands and do extra shopping. A solution to this can be to do online shopping so you do not have to subject yourself to the additional worry of the mass of strangers around you.
- If you are going to sporting events and have to purchase assigned seating, you can request to sit in an area that is on the perimeter of the crowd and closer to an exit. If you want to avoid being trapped in a mass of people when the event is over, the only thing you can really do is leave a little earlier. It’s best if you bring someone with you who is aware of your PTSD and how to help you come down from a panic attack or minimize anxiety. They should expect and be understanding if you emotionally cannot handle the crowd and need to leave.
- Consumption of alcohol can contribute to triggering of panic and anxiety, so it is best to minimize or avoid this in situations where you are already at risk of being triggered.
- We all struggle with pressure to do things we are not comfortable with or just do not want to do. However, when battling PTSD or anxiety, you should never force yourself into something that carries high risk of trigger for you. You always, always, ALWAYS have the right and the responsibility to yourself to decline to attend (or back out of) an event if you feel at all emotionally not capable of handling the environment. You are the only one who has to deal with the symptoms and discomfort and fear of your PTSD/anxiety. You are the only one who suffers, and there is never any reason that you should push yourself into something you emotionally cannot handle. You always have the option to say no. Show yourself some love and exercise that option when you need to.
If you want further information, you can approach others who struggle with PTSD and anxiety from trauma and ask for suggestions. There are many of us in the online communities, so if you are too hesitant or wary to ask others around you in your daily life, come online. We have blogs, Facebook accounts, and Twitter. (Twitter has several chats depending on your trauma – I will list days/times below). You can ask a counselor, and you can also search for more information on the internet. When you are armed with the information and the acknowledgement that you are worthy and deserving of peace, you can help lessen events / times of the year where you face more stress. The most effective route to achieve this is to get connected with a support group who understands your struggles.
A few useful chats on Twitter:
Sundays for the UK has #CSQAT for survivors of childhood sexual abuse (several adult survivors of sexual abuse in domestic violence also participate and they are VERY welcoming)
Mondays at 9 pm EST has #domesticviolencechat for ALL victims/survivors of domestic violence and the abuse that occurs in intimate partner relationships – women, men, LGBTQ, survivors of childhood domestic violence, and all forms of abuse: verbal, emotional, physical, sexual, financial, spiritual, and digital/technological abuse and stalking. Very welcoming and supportive group.
Mondays at 9 pm EST has #nomoreshame geared for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, but adult survivors of sexual abuse and sexual abuse as it occurred in domestic violence also join in. They are also very welcoming and supportive.
Tuesdays at 9 pm EST has #sexabusechat geared for the US, also geared toward survivors of childhood sexual abuse, but many of us who have survived sexual assault and abuse as adults in domestic violence also participate. Many of the same people participating in #nomoreshame on Mondays also join this as well.
Wednesdays at 9 pm EST has #PTSDchat. Many members are first responders, law enforcement, and military, but there are also several childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence survivors that join as well.