about Managing Triggers & Family Trauma during the Holidays
The holidays are often a complex and confusing time for many people. On the one hand, there may be a sense of joy, celebration and potential, while on the other hand, you may experience sorrow, grief or anger because of loss, conflict, or a dysfunctional family dynamic. Often, you may experience these seemingly conflicting feelings simultaneously, which can be frustrating and confusing.
Below are some ways you can deal with complicated family dynamics, conflict, and trauma around the holidays.
Consider and Communicate Your Boundaries Ahead of Time
Before you leave for the event, create a list of your boundaries and expectations. Answer the following questions to help in the process:
What is the worst possible outcome for this visit?
What would you do if that worst possible outcome happened? (This actually is making a lite plan for managing the worst possible situation; because if you can plan for the literal worst, you can handle anything leading up to that point.)
What’s the likelihood on a scale of 1-100 that the worst possible outcome will actually happen? (This number usually is much less than you think; sometimes your anxiety lies to you about how likely or ominous something may be. Your worst possible situation may have been real in the past, but it’s not real now because you’re a different version of yourself.)
Now, make a plan!
What is the bare minimum of behavior that you need from others? Be specific. Close your eyes and visualize.
What do you need to hear, feel, see, etcetera in order to feel safe?
What needs to be different from your previous experiences?
How do you need to be different from your previous experiences?
Have you clearly communicated any boundaries, expectations, or needs you’ve developed with your host or whoever else is going to be there?
If a specific boundary gets crossed, what’s the consequence?
Are you going to correct behavior a certain number of times? If so, how many? (For example, you might use a three strike rule for misgendering. But if you create this rule, you have to be consistent about implementing the consequences. Inconsistency perpetuates the pattern of behavior you’re trying to correct; inconsistency also means there’s no accountability for the person breaking your boundary.)
What’s the point at which you decide it’s no longer healthy for you to stay?
Do you have any allies? If so, who are they? Communicate with them in advance about ways in which you might need support.
The more specific you are ahead of time about your boundaries and expectations, the consequences if they get crossed, and a possible support system, the more likely you will be to maintain your boundaries in the moment and have a healthier, more positive overall experience.
Have an Exit Strategy
It’s important not to isolate yourself over the holidays. Being around loved ones who support and care for you can be a comfort. Having said that, you’ll also want to have a plan that will allow you to get away from crowds and holiday festivities if you feel yourself becoming triggered, uncontrollably escalated, or overwhelmed. Below are some tactful methods for making a smooth exit while creating minimal conflict:
Create a code word. If you have your own little family or are taking a friend or partner home for the holidays, establish a code word that signals when it’s time to leave. Allow for 10-15 minutes to make your goodbyes, but set an expected time limit for how long that process should take.
Drive separately. This gives you the opportunity to prepare emotionally for an event or gathering and also to decompress / process / reflect once the event is over. Most importantly, driving separately allows you to leave when YOU are ready rather than being at the behest or whim of others.
Get your own place. If you’re traveling to visit family, consider staying at a hotel or rental so you have your own space and can truly decompress at the end of a day – or so you can leave and have your own space whenever you need to. It’s pretty common for folks to have to stay in their childhood bedrooms, and sometimes there’s a lot of trauma or negative memories in those places. By getting a space of your own, you may also be avoiding retriggering re-traumatization.
Create Some Independent Activities
Sometimes family gatherings happen for multiple days or even weeks at a time. This constant contact with the same people can exacerbate already heightened moods and dynamics. To alleviate some of this stress, build in some down time that is just for you. Make plans to visit old friends if they’re in town. Get outside and take a walk in nature. Take yourself to a movie or to a cafe for a coffee. Visit your favorite places by yourself and enjoy be present in those moments. Whatever you do, try to make it as restorative as possible.
Feel Your Feelings
During high-stress times, it might be your first impulse to dissociate as a means of avoiding or compartmentalizing your feelings; however, it’s important to really feel your feelings rather than ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist. We can only heal from trauma by facing it completely and by acknowledging our pain. If you had plans to spend time with loved ones but suddenly feel angry, overwhelmed, anxious or depressed, do not deny these feelings and try to put on a good face so others have a good time. It’s better to acknowledge your feelings, share them if it’s safe, or gracefully bow out of the plans if it’s going to cause you further emotional harm.
Honor Your Inner Child
Returning to a family home or participating in holiday festivities may put us in the headspace of feeling like a powerless kid again. You’re not that kid anymore. Let’s repeat: YOU’RE NOT THAT KID ANYMORE. You have power and agency and your highest responsibility is to listen to and honor the needs of your inner child. So, visualize yourself at whatever age you were the most vulnerable or powerless and ask that kid what they need. They will answer, and it’s your job to respond accordingly – honoring what your inner child needs to feel safe, supported, protected, and nurtured. This process is called reparenting, and it can be an integral part of healing trauma. So, over the course of your holiday visit, consistently visualize this child version of yourself, check in with them, and parent them how they need to be parented. In doing so, you’re also showing up for your adult self and all the iterations of yourself that existed between then and now.
Seek Additional Support
You may also want to speak with a therapist or trusted person during this time. A therapist can help you navigate your feelings and offer coping strategies to help you prepare for and manage the holidays and your family. If you’d like to explore treatment options, please feel free to contact Prism for more information.