Coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder During the Holidaze
Coping with PTSD During the Holidaze
If you are wondering why you have difficulty surrounding holidays and/or anniversaries of traumatic dates – YOU ARE NOT ALONE. These dates can creep up on us and without realizing it often weeks or more before, the trauma reaction side effects appear and intensified. Our conscious minds do not necessarily assist us in connecting these dots, but our subconscious most certainly does remember. Cell memory wins…
Some people love this time of year and for some it induces flashbacks of trauma and grief, making it the most difficult time of year. An estimated 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives and may have acute stress disorder from it. Acute stress disorder will usually heal after 6 months from the trauma. Not all people do and up to 20% of these people go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. An estimated 5 percent of Americans—more than 13 million people—have PTSD at any given time.
According to the National Center for PTSD, about seven or eight of every 100 people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men. Some traumas may put an individual at a higher risk and biological factors like genes may make some people more likely to develop PTSD than others. Anyone is susceptible to developing PTSD: Military veterans, victims of crime, foster children, someone who loses a loved one, people involved in natural disasters, accidents, or events. If you suspect you or a loved one may have PTSD, you can be screen and diagnosed by a licensed therapist or medical professional and should not be left untreated. The sooner you seek help for it, the sooner you can begin your path to healing.
The holidays may trigger someone with PTSD in different ways. For example, someone that has been traumatized by a family member, forced attendance to gather with family can cause extreme triggers and anxiety. Different trauma histories will entail different triggers and where someone is in their recovery also has an impact. During the holidays there are more family gatherings and events and we may find ourselves around those who were in some way involved in the trauma or are unsupportive or toxic and do not consider your emotional and mental well-being.
Unhappy memories are common triggers for PTSD. Memories from holidays in abusive or a neglectful environment holiday spent in isolation due to hyper vigilance, addiction, or being in treatment. Also, holidays spent away from loved ones whether due to deaths, abandonment, distance, or situation can trigger those with PTSD.
Life changes and reflections may be another trigger. Throughout
the year, there have most likely been ups and downs, and major changes have
occurred. Many with PTSD have difficulties with change in general, and if any
major losses or changes have happened throughout the year, the holidays are the
time to "reflect upon the year". This often brings up feelings of
grieving and loss, sadness, and a longing for "the way things
were". When we look back the year during the holidays, it
also brings to light that which has not changed or goals unmet a feeling of
regret and failure can accompany this reflection.
The holidays are portrayed as a time for families and friends to join - reunite, reconnect, re-establish relationships. It is often in the movies that we see reconciliations and folks who have severed ties reconnect "in the holiday spirit." We often place these expectations on ourselves during the holidays in hopes of making things better and have lower defenses in thinking others may feel the same way and end up disappointed.
Financial concerns often arise during the holidays, with an increase in event attendance, grocery budgets, travel expenses, and gift buying. This causes even more stress to try and “keep up appearances”. When we do this, it creates an unhealthy thought in our mind that we are not good enough as we are, and depression begins taking hold.
For some, coping with PTSD may cause unhealthy behaviors such as substance abuse, eating disorders, risky and hazardous behaviors. Not taking time for self-care or failing to utilize coping techniques may cause a relapse.
So, what can you do to make your holidays less triggering and more enjoyable? Whether you have PTSD, acute stress disorder, or finding yourself more anxious, depressed, or stressed than usual, here are some tips:
Sometimes during the holidays, a sense of control is forfeited as the holiday plans suddenly spring up around you. This lack of control can actually make PTSD symptoms (like anxiety) worse. To get back some of this control, plan the holiday that you want instead of something that Martha Stewart insists you should want. Go to the events that really appeal to you and plan experiences that don’t trigger you such as putting decorations on a tree at home with family rather than going to huge party. Set up new traditions that don’t trigger PTSD symptoms.
2. So many families avoid talking about a loved one’s PTSD, but I would recommend just the opposite. Sit down with your loved ones and talk about what might be triggering during the holidays and what could happen, and what is okay for you and what isn’t. Then everyone is on the same page and understands that you’re not being antisocial or rude by excusing yourself but, rather, you’re taking care of yourself.
3. When it is not possible and or the event signifies one that you must participate in, try to stay in the moment practice grounding techniques and other modalities that you have found helpful.
4. Try not to think ahead, sometimes even the thought of being around people who don’t understand your state of mind, is enough to bring on a surge of anxiety. Know it is perfectly normal not to want to be around anyone at all.
5. Strategize ~ Decide in advance who you want to see if you do and who you don’t, what you will do and what you won’t. Plan out your activities so you spend the most time with people who are good for you and minimize contact with everyone else.
6. Have an escape plan ~ you can’t always anticipate how you’re going to feel and who’s going to say or do what affects you. Have a backup plan so that if you need to make a quick getaway you have an out.
7. Take Time out ~ It is important to plan in advance or be prepared to take down times to decompress. It’s best to decide in advance how that will work best.
8. Do What feels most comfortable ~ It’s ok for you to say “NO” pick and choose what you want to participate in and then draw the line. Setting boundaries in respect to other expectations is very important.
9. Pace yourself ~ If you feel overwhelmed, slow down. It’s better to break plans than to follow through with them when you feel you are walking into a situation you don’t want to be in. When you feel you are reaching your limit pull back and don’t feel guilty about it. Accept that you can’t do everything all at once. However, better to pace yourself and attend part of it then to push too hard and end up missing everything.
10. Listening to your needs is an ongoing process. Your body really does whisper first before screaming at you. If you feel uncomfortable with someone or in a situation, LISTEN TO THAT FEELING. Your spidey sense went off and is trying to warn you.
11. Maintain your privacy ~ Properly managing PTSD during anniversaries of traumatic events or holidays does not require you to explain this trauma response or the cause or justify your feelings to everyone you know. It’s alright to decline an invitation without giving a full explanation as to why. Certainly share your reason with people you trust and love, but for others a simple, “NO” thank you,” is enough.
12. Do what feels right for you In every moment follow your intuition. Your own inner voice knows what you need, and how and when listen to it. Be kind to yourself and keep your own inner voice in check, healing takes time and this challenging survivor path you are on is not easy, we know this.
13. Never let the fear of what other people think stop you from being yourself.
If at all possible do whatever you can to find a reason to laugh it is incredible medicine, be kind to yourself and know you are loved.
Remember the words of Michelle Rosethal, “Trauma creates change you don’t choose. Healing is about creating change you do choose”. The holidays don’t have to be a time of dread. The more you plan and prepare, the safer you’ll feel and be able to enjoy however you celebrate.
Reminder – You can light up a pitch-black room with one tiny candle but you can’t do the opposite.
This column is not a substitute for medical advice.
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