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How To Take Care Of Yourself If The Holidays Trigger Your C-PTSD

This is the season when so many of us talk a lot about holiday stress — the ramped up social calendars, the added commitments and chores and the burden of airports and delayed flights. And yes, all of these things are overwhelming. 

But what we don’t often hear about is how triggering the holiday season can be, specifically if you live with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) or come from a relational trauma background. Many people have strained, estranged or just plain painful relationships with their family of origin and/or their partner’s family of origin, which can make the holidays difficult.

It’s not uncommon in these situations for folks to spend the entire calendar year dreading the winter holidays. The last six weeks of the year can feel especially triggering for C-PTSD symptoms.

If this is you and you dread the holidays, or if you know that the holiday season might trigger your C-PTSD symptoms, bear in mind these very important self-care points that could help you this holiday season:

  1. Acknowledge and expect that you may feel triggered.
  2. Get curious about why you get triggered and how you typically respond.
  3. Get creative and actionable about how you cope and self-soothe when you’re triggered.
  4. Using these insights and ideas, put a self-care plan into place before the holidays arrive.

Let’s dive into each of these items further…

Acknowledge and expect that you may feel triggered.

When you really dislike the holidays and feel alone in dreading them, it’s easy to feel lonely and somehow odd or different that you are having this experience.

As a licensed therapist, I’m here to tell you that you’re not alone. Many, many people feel triggered and challenged over the holiday season. It can be a hard time of the year for many people. One of the most self-supporting and compassionate things you can do for yourself is simply to acknowledge and expect that you will feel your C-PTSD symptoms get triggered. Simply accepting this reality can be a huge first step towards supporting yourself.

Get curious about why you get triggered and how you typically respond.

Knowing more about the people, places and circumstances that tend to trigger our C-PTSD can support you in crafting a self-care plan. The plan can help you avoid triggers, limit your exposure to them or provide you with resources when triggers show up. 

To support your self-reflection about why you get triggered and how you typically respond, I suggest completing the following exercises:

  • List out five examples of the people, places, situations and content that have historically triggered you. (Examples: Being stuck in the house with mom with no easy exit, getting stuck having to clean up Christmas dinner by yourself, while your siblings go out for a drink, etc.)
  • List out five examples of how you usually respond when you’re feeling triggered. What thoughts, urges and feelings typically come up for you? (Examples: I feel the urge to flee, to run away, to hop on a plane and GO. I feel panicked and trapped.)
  • List out five examples of what has helped you in the past when you’re feeling triggered. List a few examples of what hasn’t helped. (Examples: Calling my best friend has helped. Trying to get my uncle to see how he hurt my feelings has not helped; that was a losing battle. Eating a whole tin of fudge didn’t actually help in the long run.)

Get creative and actionable about how you cope and self-soothe when you’re triggered.

I don’t think that pretending or hoping we won’t get triggered over the holidays is realistic. Instead, I think a more helpful thing to do is to focus your attention and energy on building a big and robust toolbox of coping and self-soothing tools to use when you do get triggered. 

If you never have to use these tools, that’s great. But at least they will be there if you need them. To build your own toolbox of creative, self-soothing tools, I want to invite you to reflect on the following:

  • List out five examples of how you can structure time over the holidays to not feel so triggered. (Examples: Can you stay at a hotel versus your parents’ place? Rent a car if you simply need to get away? Plan some dates with a loving friend who you know will be in town?)
  • List out five examples of how you can set boundaries with your family members — verbally, physically and emotionally. (Examples: I won’t participate in any family conversations about politics. I will politely tell my aunt to stop asking me when I plan on having children and will change the conversation to my cousin’s new job instead. I will not go for a car ride alone with my brother anymore.)
  • Create a “Safe Harbor” list: List out five people you can call/text/Facetime/Zoom who can hold space for you and help you process and feel sane again. (Examples: friends, mentors, your therapist, etc. Bonus points if you program their numbers into your cell before you head out for the holidays!)
  • Develop a “Things That Ground You” list: List out five things that ground you when you’re feeling off-balance. (Examples: Physical exercise, like weight lifting or riding your Peloton; looking at Facebook photos of you and your friends back home; or eating something hearty, like potatoes or squash.)
  • Craft a “Things That Comfort You” list: List out five things that bring you tons of comfort when you’re feeling stressed. (Examples: Your favorite fleece sweatshirt, a cherished copy of your favorite guilty-pleasure book, or a hot shower with a fancy new soap.)
  • Write a “Places and Activities That Help You Feel Good” list: List out five places you can go or miscellaneous activities you can do (solo or together) over the holidays. (Examples: A daily walk to the coffee shop in your mom’s small town. A quick car ride to a nearby park, where you feel a sense of calm watching dogs play. Leading your nieces and nephews in the construction of a gingerbread house.)

If you need more ideas for self-soothing or comforting self-care tools, please explore one of my other pieces on The Mighty: 101 Self-Care Ideas For A Bad Day.

Using these insights and ideas, put a self-care plan into place before the holidays arrive.

If you’ve been writing down your answers, you should now have a pretty robust list of insights into your specific holiday triggers and a handful of actionable steps you can take to good care of your precious self. 

Like I mentioned earlier, you may not necessarily need this expansive toolbox across the entire holiday season. However it’s important to have one pre-built and ready to access if you do need it.

Spend some time answering these questions and putting your insights into action. But most importantly please have compassion for yourself this season. This time of the year is hard for many people. If this is you, please take such good, tender care of yourself.

Warmly, Annie