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3 Ways to Support Someone With 'Religious Trauma Syndrome' During the Holidays

The “season of lights” is supposed to be about getting a break from the winter blues! So why does it have to be so stressful? Comfort food, festive decorations, fun songs, presents; what’s not to like? Yet, for people who have experienced trauma related to religion, the stress and depression of the holidays can go beyond worrying about shopping crowds, air travel, meal planning or less-than-enjoyable house guests.

Religious trauma syndrome is not an official diagnosis, but a term coined by Dr. Marlene Winell, a specialist in human development and family relations, for a condition “comparable to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but specifically induced by toxic religious experiences.” I would add that shadows of these experiences persist for many years. As she discusses in her book “Leaving the Fold,” these traumas can include physical or sexual abuse within a religious setting. LGBTQIA+ people are especially at risk and increased religiosity has been associated with higher levels of suicidal ideation in this group. Bear in mind, your loved one may not ever bring this up — part of the problem is feeling unsafe about sharing their authentic feelings with others.

Here are some ways you can be a valuable “support person” to a loved one who is planning on attending family gatherings during the holidays:

1. Start a new tradition.

You don’t have to give up beloved holiday traditions to support your loved one, or worry about modifying them to avoid emotional pain. Chances are, they don’t even want you to give up something that important to you. Rather than worry about retrofitting your traditions into a “religiously neutral” family gathering, try something different. Now is the perfect time to start a new tradition that will build fond memories, restore connections and provide a safe way for family members to reconnect with one another.

For example, you could choose a more neutral holiday, like Labor Day or New Year’s, for an additional family get-together. Or you could add activities to an existing get-together that your loved one might be more comfortable with, like creating birdseed cookies for the trees and bushes in your yard, or a board game night. Maybe host a family reunion in a new place you would like to explore that no one has been to before. This is assuming, of course, that you already have reason to believe that your loved one is open to spending time in a larger family group.

It’s important to emphasize that this event or activity does not replace what your family usually does for the holidays. Over time, hopefully, it will naturally fit within the wonderful collection of traditions that are a part of your family.

2. Build flexibility into your gatherings.

One way to cultivate a feeling of safety and support is to build flexibility into your plans. For example, if you have a choice between hosting at a relative’s house that is in an isolated place a long drive away and one that is more centrally located, choose the latter. You might consider driving an extra car to gatherings if your loved one does not bring their own so that they can leave if they need to without inconveniencing anyone. If you usually serve a sit-down meal with a set menu, try doing the meal buffet-style so that if your loved one chooses not to eat certain foods, it won’t seem like an affront.

Many families also have the expectation that all family members will be there for the entire event, if that has always been the tradition. Now might be a good time to reevaluate that expectation. This could benefit everyone: as families grow and change, couples with small children might need to leave early, or students might need time in their restricted academic break schedules to visit friends they have not seen in a very long time, or perhaps your family has gone from single faith to multifaith. As your family grows, this flexibility will help new members to feel welcome and included.

Changing traditions and expectations around traditions can feel scary. The fragmentation of schedules and the possibility of some people spending less time with the group than usual can feel like the family itself is fragmenting. Bear in mind, though, that in the end, the increased flexibility is likely to make family members more likely to want to come together. They will feel less stress and they will appreciate that their needs are being respected.

3. Let your loved one take the lead.

It’s important that your loved one is able to decide for themselves what activities they feel comfortable participating in and what topics they feel ready to discuss. For example, they might be fine singing traditional songs in a non-religious context, like the living room, but be unable to tolerate this activity in a religious service. Or they might not be able to tolerate listening to holiday music at all. Each individual needs the freedom to manage their exposure to things that trigger traumatic memories so that they can be fully present with you as the person you know and care about.

If your loved one seems uncomfortable, it’s OK to ask them if they’d like to step out with you for another activity, like grocery shopping or a walk. Sometimes, it can be difficult for people with trauma to articulate their needs, and this gives them an “out” without having to expressly state to anyone that they’re being triggered or leave suddenly without explanation. And if they decide that they are not attending at all, make sure to let them know that their feelings are valid and that you love them whether or not they are able to come.

Talking about what happened in the past can be an important part of the healing process. Communicating openly is part of a healthy family dynamic. But this type of difficult discussion is best left to a less stressful time than the holiday season. If this is important to you and your loved one, try and set aside dedicated time for it later (and consider counseling).

When my family has shown me respect and support despite not fully understanding what I have experienced, I feel loved and cherished. I still feel anxiety over simple things like wrapping paper and the smell of fir trees, but my level of avoidance has diminished over the years. Without a doubt, my sense of meaning regarding the winter holidays is complex and mixed. Most important to me is that I am given permission to be who I am and decide for myself what this time of year means to me.

Photo by Caleb Lucas on Unsplash