Updated on 11/15/23

Note to reader: The content of this article is specifically for those with a history of trauma or trauma-related diagnoses.

It’s deemed “the most wonderful time of the year.” For many, the holiday season is often filled with loving memories of family and friends. It’s a time to reconnect with loved ones and share in family traditions; a time that most people look forward to. But what happens when the holiday season is not a joyful time? For some individuals, the holidays can bring up old trauma wounds that have yet to be forgotten. Trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event” that can lead to long-term reactions such as flashbacks, strained relationships, unpredictable emotions, and physical ailments such as nausea and headaches. When trauma is associated with the holidays, it can make managing  symptoms especially difficult because there is an expectation for everyone to be happy during this time of year. The thought of gathering with family members during such trying times can invoke feelings of anxiety and stress. Here are a few tips to help you face trauma during the holidays.

Identify Trauma Triggers

Trauma triggers are things that lead up to the emotional reaction that trauma produces. These triggers can be a sound, smell, person, environment or thought that causes us to no longer feel emotionally safe. Because the holidays are known for certain smells, decorations, songs, etc., it is important to identify trauma triggers that may occur during the holiday season. Knowing triggers that cause an emotional response is a good first step in being able to help manage those responses. Depending on how much trauma work you’ve done, you may know what triggers you. Some triggers don’t present themselves until you are put in a particular situation that causes you to feel emotionally unsafe. When you realize that you are being triggered, try to identify what it is and how you can either remove yourself from the trigger or find ways to cope while it is present.

Practice Good Self-Care

The holiday season represents a time for giving and we’re taught to put others first. Though it is good to care for others during this season, if you are dealing with trauma, remember to take good care of yourself. The holidays are a busy time that can leave us physically and mentally exhausted. Find time to rest and maintain good sleeping habits. When you are experiencing a trauma response, practice grounding techniques. Meditation is a good mindfulness tool to help you remain grounded when trauma triggers arise. It only takes a few minutes to practice deep breathing exercises and clear your mind to help regulate your emotions.

Do what brings you joy! Whether it’s taking a walk, reading a book or listening to your favorite music, find ways to nourish your soul. While you are entertaining family members and finding ways to show your appreciation and gratitude for others, remember that you cannot pour from an empty glass. Being good to yourself will help you be good to others around you.

Set Boundaries with Family Members

Let’s face it, families can be complex. Intentionally or unintentionally, our loved ones can sometimes be our greatest triggers when it comes to trauma. There’s often the notion that attachment, no matter how distant or strained it may be, is boundless—because we are connected by blood or marriage, we have the right to say or do harmful things to our loved ones with no emotional boundaries. That is not the case. It is OK to set boundaries with family members. Establish healthy limits when interacting with family members who may be triggering. Determine how long you feel you will be able to visit with that grandparent or aunt and uncle and stick to that boundary. Identify family members, if any, that create a safe space for you. Utilize those relationships as a support during the holidays. If it’s possible, speak up when a family member makes you feel unsafe. It may not be an easy task, especially with family members who are revered. Remember that your voice matters and is powerful. By setting healthy boundaries, it can help break the cycle of re-traumatization during the holidays.

Always Remember You Have Support

Regardless of how others respond to your trauma, please know that your trauma responses are valid. No matter how irrational your responses may seem, your body is reacting because it no longer feels safe. Living with trauma is not easy. It can be emotionally and physically exhausting, causing you to feel isolated. Rely on your trusted loved ones to share your struggles during the holiday season. If you have experienced actual trauma, it’s recommended to seek professional help so they can help navigate trauma triggers during this holiday season. Discovery Mood & Anxiety Program specializes in trauma-informed treatment so you get the help you deserve. Utilize whatever support you need to help face triggers during the holidays and know that you are not alone.

April Cox is a permanency specialist II at Professional Family Care Services in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She is passionate about the mental health of individuals and families and prides her work on providing practical ways to promote mental health wellness. April has a BA in sociology and has worked as a therapeutic staff support, family-based counselor, and drug and alcohol counselor before transitioning to child welfare, where she helps foster children and foster families process past traumas. April is passionate about the arts and spends her evenings teaching dance classes to all ages.

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