Dealing with PTSD over the holidays
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can cause a whole host of symptoms, which can affect every area of your life, and when this is paired with ‘expectations’ of how you should feel, it can become unbearable.
Holiday seasons like Christmas, Easter, Eid, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa (or even just birthdays) are supposed to be a time of happiness, cheer and get-togethers, but for many people with PTSD or C-PTSD, it can be a stressful and unhappy time as it’s also full of loud, busy and overstimulating events. Meeting new people, parties and family events all add to the sense you have to behave in a certain manner (i.e. forget your worries and feel festive). Add to that, for some people, it’s the very friends or family members that they’re expected to see during this time that may have caused their trauma in the first place through abuse, neglect and/or estrangement for example.
Putting on a ‘smiley mask’ can just add to feeling of guilt, panic, shame and fear. You might feel anger and guilt because you find it hard to truly embrace the season… everyone should be ‘jolly’ at Christmas, and excited for the New Year, right?
If you stop to think about it, the time of year or the expectations of other people can’t dictate your mood or the level of your emotional and mental health. Putting decorations up is not a magic fix for trauma and a Bank Holiday Monday is not a signal for your PTSD or C-PTSD to ‘take a day off’. In fact, having your normal routine disrupted and no work to distract you can be destabilising.
So, the first step in coping with PTSD or C-PTSD during seasonal ‘high days and holidays’ is to accept that you may not approach these occasions the same way others do. Or indeed, the same way as you did before your traumatic experience.
Give yourself permission to understand the recovery process from PTSD or C-PTSD, rather than kicking yourself for not being festive enough!
So why can holidays cause added pressure for people with PTSD?
There are a variety of reasons why someone with PTSD or C-PTSD might struggle more over the holidays, but understanding and accepting them may help you to relieve some of the guilt, added pressure and expectations – as you’re not alone in feeling this way!
- Sensory Overload and Hypervigilance: Managing hypervigilance becomes challenging in social situations with sudden loud noises or close encounters with strangers at parties and gatherings. The sensory overload from bright lights, loud music, and crowded spaces during holiday events can be overwhelming for those with heightened sensitivities.
- Struggle with Food and Addictions: The holidays can be an especially challenging time for individuals dealing with food-related concerns, disordered eating patterns, or struggles with addiction. Celebrations often centre around elaborate meals and social gatherings, creating an environment where people facing these challenges may feel heightened pressure and discomfort.
- Confronting Trauma Triggers: Time spent with friends or family you rarely see, or visiting locations tied to trauma may evoke challenging memories from the past. Additionally, some holiday environments, with festive decorations and specific rituals, can act as triggers for traumatic memories. For instance, certain scents, sounds, or visuals associated with the season may evoke distressing recollections.
- Disrupted Routine and Coping Strategies: The disruption of daily routines, common during the holidays, can destabilise people who find comfort and security in a structured schedule. This change may lead to increased stress and anxiety.
- Obligation to Unsupportive Networks: Experiencing a sense of duty to visit family or friends who lack support or harbour toxicity might make you feel compelled to conceal your PTSD or C-PTSD and the accompanying symptoms, given the lack of understanding or acceptance.
- Heightened Social Expectations: Expectations for social gatherings are elevated during holidays, creating discomfort for individuals with PTSD or C-PTSD triggered by hustle, bustle, and noise.
- Chronic Physical Health Challenges: Many people with PTSD and C-PTSD also have chronic physical health issues, experiencing pain, sickness, or exhaustion, leading to sadness and regret at missed opportunities.
- Reflecting on Challenges During New Year: The New Year prompts reflection on past troubles and upcoming battles, including dates connected to trauma or private grief, creating additional emotional strain.
- Social Pressure and Expectations: Individuals with PTSD or C-PTSD may find it challenging to cope with the heightened expectations of being cheerful and sociable during the Christmas season – this can lead to increased frustration, guilt and shame.
- Financial Stress: The burden of financial strain during the holiday season can be particularly overwhelming. For individuals dealing with PTSD and C-PTSD, many of whom may be unable to work due to their conditions, the usual financial worries can be further exacerbated during this time. The pressure to buy gifts and participate in holiday festivities may intensify feelings of stress and anxiety.
- Loneliness and Isolation: Despite the emphasis on togetherness, people with PTSD and C-PTSD may feel isolated during the holidays. For instance, not having a supportive social network can exacerbate feelings of loneliness.
- Increased Substance Use: The holiday season often involves social events where alcohol is prevalent. Individuals with PTSD or C-PTSD may be tempted to use substances as a coping mechanism, leading to potential relapses or worsening mental health.
- Reflecting on Loss: The holiday season may amplify feelings of grief, especially for those who have experienced significant losses. For example, the absence of a loved one during holiday celebrations can intensify feelings of sadness.
- Limited Access to Mental Health Support: The holiday period often coincides with reduced availability of mental health services. Limited access to therapists or support networks can leave individuals feeling stranded during times of increased distress.
Being lonely in a crowd… or at home
Even people who don’t have PTSD or C-PTSD can find certain times of year depressing and isolating. However, post-traumatic stress can certainly increase the potential for some calendar dates to create dips in your mental health – so how can you help yourself (or a loved one) during any holiday seasons? Here are some tips that might work for you:
Plan ahead: Where you can, anticipate potential challenges and triggers, and also write a list of activities that bring distraction, calmness, and joy.
Create a “Before/During/After Plan” (BDA) for each event or significant phase of the season, such as phone calls, planning, declining invites, food prep, gatherings, and emotional traditions.
Prioritise your self-care by outlining the specific actions you want to take before, during, and after each event to enhance your resilience, steadiness, and confidence in navigating potentially stressful situations.
Say no: If parties, dinners, or large crowds of people are overwhelming and trigger stress and anxiety, it’s absolutely okay to say no to invitations.
Prioritise your well-being by understanding your limits and communicating them assertively. Instead of pushing yourself into uncomfortable situations, consider suggesting alternative meeting places with friends or politely declining with a simple ‘no, thank you.’ (or if this is too hard, have a pre-planned go-to excuse for why you can’t attend).
Remember, it’s crucial to do what is best for you and establish clear boundaries, even if it means not attending every gathering.
Have an ‘exit strategy’: Remember, you’re not obligated to stay longer than you’re comfortable with, and there’s no need to feel guilty. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for leaving.
Having an ‘escape plan’ like saying you need to catch the last bus or drop off some shopping for a neighbour, can provide a sense of peace, even if you don’t end up using it.
Additionally, taking breaks is essential. Feel free to leave the room, take a walk outside, or find a quiet spot in a room for a few moments of peace. These short breaks can work wonders for your nervous system before rejoining the festivities, even if you don’t feel the need for it just yet.
Don’t think too far ahead: While it’s useful to plan ahead, dwelling too much on future social situations can often amplify anxiety.
Instead of letting your mind wander too far into the future, try to stay in the moment, enjoy getting dressed up and ready to go out, or at the very least, give yourself extra time to stop, breathe deeply and be in the moment before you step through the door.
Remember, it’s okay to take things one step at a time and savour the present without letting worries about the future overshadow the joy of the moment.
Let your loved ones know: Let your close circle know that you expect to face a tough few days so they can adjust their responses and check in on you in a way you find helpful.
If you feel comfortable, share the specifics of what’s on your mind and causing concern. Plan to connect with them, even if only for a brief 5 or 10 minutes before or after holiday gatherings.
We know that many therapists may not be readily available during holiday weeks, so reaching out to supportive friends and family who have your back can alleviate feelings of isolation and abandonment during vulnerable moments.
Create New Traditions: Consider the liberating opportunity to establish fresh, soothing traditions and annual milestones.
Rather than the potential stress of a large family dinner, maybe opt for a serene walk on the beach, accompanied by a comforting flask of hot chocolate and some snacks.
Perhaps invite a friend to share a Christmas film-watching marathon, or prepare an intimate dinner as a gesture of gratitude for those who have played a crucial role in supporting your journey through PTSD and C-PTSD recovery.
These new traditions not only provide moments of solace and joy but also allow you to celebrate meaningful connections in a way that aligns with your well-being and comfort.
Stay Grounded: Maintaining a grounded state can be your strongest line of ‘defence’ against the challenges that may arise during the holiday season. Your coping mechanisms become more effective when you are grounded.
You may find that carry textured items in your pockets, bags, or car for tactile reassurance helps. Have a notecard on hand, or in your phone, reminding you of the date, that you’re safe along with any other important orienting details.
Avoid drifting into a detached state by staying engaged. Use your phone to play music or interactive apps when you sense yourself losing focus. If things become overwhelming, step outside to wash your hands or face with cool water, or take a brief outdoor break to revitalise yourself with fresh air or colder temperatures. You can find more Grounding Techniques, recommended by people with PTSD and C-PTSD on our website.
Don’t forget to look after yourself: In the midst of this busy and challenging season, don’t forget the basics.
Take your medications, eat well, and stay hydrated. Rest your body and mind, even if you can’t sleep. Your physical health is essential, just like staying emotionally grounded.
Neglecting these simple things could make you more vulnerable to your PTSD & C-PTSD symptoms, leading to more difficulties later on. Prioritise your overall
well-being by taking care of these fundamental needs, even if it requires setting reminders on your phone to remember when and what you need.
Limit alcohol intake: The holidays can be challenging for those who enjoy a drink, but it’s important to be aware that any level of intoxication can bring up painful memories unexpectedly. This can leave you feeling defenceless against overwhelming emotions. Even when your body is buzzing with stress, it’s crucial to resist the urge for another drink to cope. Using alcohol as a way to drown out difficult feelings can actually make you more vulnerable, both in your mind and possibly in your behaviour.
If you find it hard to control your alcohol intake or need to avoid it altogether, consider asking a trusted loved one for support. Having someone you trust by your side can help you stay accountable and make you feel less isolated during moments when temptation is strong.
Breathe: It might seem really basic, but you’d be surprised how often we forget to breathe when we’re feeling totally overwhelmed.
In those moments when everything feels like too much, try to pause and take a few slow, deep breaths. It’s like giving yourself a moment to reset and release some of that built-up tension. Just focus on your breath, and you might be amazed at how it can help calm your mind and make those overwhelming moments a bit more manageable.
Remember, simple acts of self-care, like taking a moment to breathe, can make a big difference in how you navigate challenging times.
The trick is to create ways to mark seasonal milestones in a controllable, calm setting that manages your symptoms. That could even involve crafting your own meaningful rituals and letting everyone else know it’s okay to do the traditional stuff without you.
The best way to get through annual occasions
It really all comes down to this… The holidays can be tough for everyone, even those who seem to have it all together. It’s important to remember that perfection is not the goal. Mistakes will happen, and you might have bad days or moments where you’re not at your best. It’s ok if things don’t go as planned or if you stumble a bit.
If things go wrong, or not as you’d like, the most important thing to do is be kind to yourself. Give yourself some understanding and comfort, especially during these times. Be gentle – if you wouldn’t criticise a friend for the same mistake, don’t do it to yourself. Take a breath, remind yourself that it’s okay, and assure yourself that you’re going to be okay. Remember, self-kindness is key during the holiday season and beyond. You’ve got this.
If you need more ideas of positive activities and therapies for PTSD, please check out the other articles on our blog, information about treatments, or resources about other activities and therapies that can help ease symptoms.
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.