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The Holiday Season Can Be Difficult for People With PTSD

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As a child, my greatest fear was of the dark. I’d go to bed with my door cracked open, the light of my mother’s TV down the hall a comforting warmth as I’d drift off to sleep. But eventually she’d go to bed too, and I’d inevitable startle awake into cold darkness.

• What is PTSD?

The moonlight would filter through my window blinds, masking common objects in strange patterns of shadow and light. The white leather shoes of the porcelain baby doll I’d play with by day would glint in the dark like the eyes of a monster, thwarted in its plans to sink its teeth into me by my sudden wakefulness. Or I’d wake up and be completely tangled in the sheets, fallen between the bed and the wall and unable to disentangle myself. Worse yet, I’d turn myself in my sleep, waking up with my head where my feet were. Getting up to go use the bathroom, I’d smash my head into the bookcase where I expected open air and shriek, in pain and certain in my sleepiness that I was trapped in a small box and unable to escape. I’d thrash and fall to the floor before realizing what had happened. In times like this, my heart knew no greater fear.

As an adult, I’ve been through fearful experiences no one should have to. As a result of the traumas I’ve experienced, I was formally diagnosed two years ago with PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Maybe you’re all too familiar with PTSD and are looking for support or a way of explaining to your family and friends, or maybe you’re here because a loved one sent you this link to help you understand why the holidays are difficult for them. To understand this, let’s first talk about what having PTSD means.

PTSD is characterized by a heightened fight-or-flight reflex, the impulse that tells you when to defend yourself and when to run from danger. This was really useful for our ancestors who had to run from enemies or predators. If an individual experienced a trauma such as being abused or attacked by another individual or a predator, their central nervous system physically rewired itself around that event, teaching their body to be prepared to fight or get away if it ever happened again. At the slightest indication that something could happen, the individual’s body flooded with adrenaline, senses heightened, and pulse quickened to increase oxygenation of the blood and prepare for action. This was a natural process that saved our ancestor’s lives, and as time passed for that individual, that instinctual reaction would gradually weaken as their brain subconsciously registered a lessened risk. If the incident recurred or something similar happened, the individual’s nervous system would immediately put them on high alert again, sometimes even stronger than before.

So what about now? If this is a natural process, what happens with individuals who have PTSD? Well, just like with our ancestors, their body is trying to protect them from further harm. Anything the subconscious thinks is anything like the time that person got hurt can cause anxiety, panic, anger, fear, even replaying of the incident in the person’s mind that is so detailed, the person feels like they are actually reliving the trauma. Remember your fears as a child? PTSD is like when your heart pounded so hard, you thought it was going to beat out of your chest, and your fear was so great, you could hardly breathe. But instead of growing up to know you’re safe, you’re faced with the reality that the thing you’re afraid of has happened before, and because it’s happened before, it could happen again. The things that go bump in the night are suddenly undeniably real. Even if you logically know you’re safe, your body is telling you otherwise.

Because of this, the holiday season can be difficult for individuals with PTSD. Sometimes family or friends are involved in a complicated trauma history, and seeing a specific person can be jarring or unbearable. Sometimes holidays mean visiting a place associated with a trauma and reliving the experience because the only thing that’s changed about it is the date. This becomes especially complicated as the holidays are supposed to be joyful and a person with PTSD can feel alienated for not “playing along.” If you’re a survivor of trauma, know that your struggles are valid. You shouldn’t be expected to “just get over it,” and things can get better with lots of time and self-care. If you have to leave the celebration, don’t feel guilty for taking care of yourself.

If your loved one with PTSD sent you here, consider how you can support them during this difficult time. Ask them questions, knowing they have the right to not answer, and give them agency over how you help them. Make suggestions such as providing a room they can escape to if they become overwhelmed, decide on a signal they can use to alert you that they need help exiting a problematic situation, or ask them what triggers their symptoms and how you can help minimize those. If they want to talk about it, listen to their story and validate their experiences. Above all, never guilt them for what they choose not to do, and do not blame them for their trauma. Thank them for trusting you, and do your best to make the holiday season as painless as possible.

Image via Thinkstock

Originally published: December 23, 2016
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