3 Reasons The Holidays Are Triggering For Abuse Survivors
The holiday season has been dubbed “The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year.” And for many, the days spanning from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day are just that—a wonderful, exciting season. But for survivors of abuse, the holiday season can be particularly painful. So many of us connect long-held emotions with holiday traditions and gatherings, making this time of the year intensely triggering.
I’d like to take a moment to address some of these challenges and to provide a few suggestions to make the holiday season more manageable for ourselves and the survivors that we love.
3 Common Holiday Triggers For Abuse Survivors… and What We Can Do to Help Ourselves and Others:
For many abuse survivors, the holiday season is filled with triggering memories. In the U.S. we heavily rely on repeated, traditional holiday activities to celebrate the season. We sing from the same seasonal playlist every year, we decorate the tree in the same way, and attend annual holiday events we have participated in for years. For some, the predictability may be comforting, but for others it is a landmine of explosive memories. For instance, a popular Christmas song may have been playing in the background during a traumatic interaction with an abuser. Now it seems as if that song is playing every time you walk into a store or turn on the radio. An otherwise joyful holiday party may have been forever ruined by a victim blaming comment made by an insensitive acquaintance. Because of this, it is now hard to associate the annual party with anything but the painful memories. It can feel like there is a holiday tradition at every turn that reminds you of a sour experience.
Tips for Survivors: Be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself space to feel and heal. The “triggers” or flashbacks you are experiencing are normal reactions to abuse and trauma. Consider sharing what triggers you and why with a trusted friend or loved one. Perhaps keeping a journal would allow you to process and release your feelings and keep track of your healing progress.
Create new memories and associations. There are thousands of ways to celebrate the holidays. Consider breaking into some new traditions that do not carry old memories. Pinterest is full of fun new ways to celebrate, many of which are free or inexpensive. If you have the opportunity, why not travel to a new location? Even if it’s just a few hours away, the new scenery may help you disconnect from the triggering memories. If you want to continue some of your old traditions, try to put a new spin on it. Include new people in the activity or do things in a new order. This can help reframe and replace past negative memories with positive, new memories.
Tips for Supporters: Listen. Do not judge or attempt to discredit the survivor's feelings. Empathize and respect the survivor’s individual grieving process. Let the survivor know you are happy to sit with them and listen as they share about what they are feeling, but respect their wishes to grieve privately and take alone time for themselves. Assure survivors that the change in the holiday season is not their fault and that it is ok to grieve their loss. Make suggestions for new, fun traditions, and be active in helping the survivor create positive replacement memories if they are open to doing so.
Unhealthy Family Gatherings
Holidays are often spent together with family. The sad reality is that some survivors do not feel comfortable celebrating the holidays with their family, possibly because family failed to respond properly to their abuse disclosure, or because they engage in behaviors that are unhealthy for the survivor’s healing journey. Other survivors may be forced to sit at a table with their abuser if they attend a family celebration. And in other instances, survivors may be shunned by family and not welcome at gatherings after speaking up about the abuse they experienced. Whether the survivor made the difficult choice to forgo the family holiday gathering, or whether they were uninvited, it is an extremely difficult experience to be without family during the holiday season.
Tips for survivors: Remember, the abuse you experienced is not your fault, and neither is the reaction or non-reaction from your family. You deserve to feel safe. It is healthy for you to set boundaries to advance your healing. Consider celebrating only with the family or friends who do support you. Maybe you have extended relatives whom you trust but have not interacted with much in past years, or perhaps you have friends who are closer to you than blood relatives. Consider reaching out and starting a new gathering where you feel safe.
Tips For Supporters: Your survivor friend or family member may need you now more than ever. Let them know you love them and support their healing journey. Offer to include them in your celebrations in a way that feels safe for them. Even if the survivor does not take you up on your offer, the genuine and thoughtful suggestion can go a long way.
Overwhelming Despair and Loneliness
An overwhelming sense of despair, depression, or loneliness stemming from the abuse and trauma may blanket the survivor during the holiday season. Some may withdraw to avoid triggering memories. Others may be grappling with what it is like to spend the holidays without their abuser. Even though they were treated poorly by the abuser, they still may have an emotional attachment to them and grieve the loss of that relationship during the most “romantic” time of the year. Others may participate in the festivities but feel a deep sense of loneliness in the midst of a crowd of people who do not understand or empathize with the trauma they experienced.
It can be frustrating to walk through this grieving period while the whole rest of the world seems to be merry and bright. There can be an inner conflict between wishing you could be happy and celebratory like others and feeling irritated that others want you to rush through the grieving process.
Tips For Survivors: Again, what you are feeling is normal for those who have experienced trauma. It may be helpful to learn about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Understanding why you feel the way you do can give you a sense of hope that things will get better. If you can, reach out to empathetic friends and loved ones for support and encouragement. I would also highly recommend reaching out to a professional counselor. Depression can be debilitating, and professionals can give you the tools (and sometimes medication) to cope and heal faster. Additionally, if you ever feel like hurting yourself (or someone else), please immediately reach out for help. You are loved and worthy of love. The world needs you! It gets better.
Lifeline: 24/7 Hotline 1-800-273-8255 or Chat
Tips For Supporters: Be aware of the fact that your survivor friend may be struggling during this season. Reach out to them in a spirit of empathy and be willing to listen and sit with them as they grieve. Offer to include them in holiday gatherings but respect their need for privacy and space. Never judge them for not being in the “holiday spirit”. Instead, listen if they are willing to share their feelings with you.
If you haven’t heard from your friend in a while, check on them to make sure they are okay. Let them know they are important to you. Know the signs of suicidal tendencies and call for help if you suspect they may be thinking about hurting themselves. Gently suggest to them that professional counseling may help to ease their despair and accelerate their healing process.
I know this is a difficult season for many of us, but I want to leave you with these words from Jesus: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised…”- Luke 4
May you feel the care and compassion of Jesus this holiday season.