Christmas, Holidays, and PTSD

I came across an article that was so spot on I just had to share with my fellow, Every-Day Warriors.  It’s about how the Holidays, with great perpetuation, can be emotional torture for survivors of PTSD and/or Complex Trauma.  In all humility, I have gained new insights, too, in respecting the experiences of past traumas of close friends, especially my husband, my dearest friend.

PTSD and Holidays

By Patience Mason

Copyright Patience H. C, Mason, 1997.

First published in The Post-Traumatic Gazette

Most people do not realize that people with PTSD have anniversary reactions. Holidays may also be anniversaries of trauma and bring up a lot of pain. This is one of the most distressing forms of re=experiencing for survivors and their families.

If the survivor doesn’t recognize that this is one of the symptoms of PTSD, he or she may feel like Scrooge instead of like a normal human being who went through hell at that time of the year.

If the family doesn’t understand that this is a PTSD anniversary reaction, they may be very angry at the survivor. “What is wrong with you?” is a heart-rending, humiliating question when the survivor doesn’t know why s/he reacts like this.

If your veteran spent a particularly horrible Christmas seeing villagers lose all they had, seeing friends die, seeing the fat cats in the rear partying while the troops were suffering, he may have a hard time with Christmas. If your abusive father tore up the Christmas tree every year, if your uncle molested you at the family get together when you were eight, if you got mugged while out Christmas shopping, or date raped after an office party, or if your violent family pretended nothing was wrong during the holidays, these upcoming holidays may be a hard time for you.

This is a normal reaction.

Holidays are also a really stressful time for many trauma survivors because they seem to reinforce the outsiderness of being a survivor of trauma. Everyone else seems so happy while your guts are twisted into knots as you think about past events.

For veterans and other survivors, this pain can be compounded by grief for lost friends and their families who now face the holidays without those loved ones who didn’t survive.

Guilt may also rear its painful head. Why did I survive?

The financial difficulties many trauma survivors experience are highlighted by the commercialization of the holidays. There are a lot of pressures to conform.

One of my first healthy actions in my marriage was to decide that Bob didn’t have to celebrate Christmas after he came back from Vietnam. I loved it so I should celebrate it and let him be him. I have no idea where that idea came from but it saved me a lot of fights. Today I look back on it as a miracle, accepting Bob as he was, and detaching in a healthy way.

I think this is an important point for all trauma survivors and their families:

Let the people who love the holiday celebrate it, and the people for whom it brings pain don’t have to. This may cause problems with the extended family or the kids, but treating the survivor with respect is one healing way to frame it:

“We have to respect other people’s feelings and limits,” can be a healthy way to put it.

We can also create our own ways of celebrating the holidays. We don’t have to conform to a rigid commercial stereotype of piles of expensive gifts and big gatherings. As a matter of fact one thing that trauma can bring you face to face with is the value of people as opposed to things.

We’re starting a tradition in our crowd this year (a number of whom are trauma survivors and veterans) of homemade, recycled, or under $5 gifts. Ingenuity and fun!

Survivors may need to create new rituals to help in their healing. For instance a veteran who lost friends in combat on Christmas may want to feed the homeless (many of whom are combat veterans) instead of participating in a big family dinner with people who may or may not appreciate his service.

He may need to go to a special place and tell his lost buddies how much he misses them and wishes they had lived. Someone else may want to help provide Christmas presents for children of poor families or for other survivors of trauma. The range of possibilities is limited only by the imagination.

If all you want to do is stay drunk or stoned through the holidays, it might be good to find help instead. No one wants to be providing traumatic memories for the next generation.

What you do while drunk or stoned can be pretty unpleasant for others, and especially painful for family members of both the spouse variety and the small-fry variety.

Crass commercialization and shop till you drop take the fun out of the holiday for me. So does having religion shoved down my throat, but I find that I can celebrate the birth of a child who represents all children to me and use it as an opportunity for me to do good in the world.

Perhaps you and your family can do the same.

Holiday Helps: Asking for input and creating family traditions:

Something I didn’t think of at the time was asking for input, which is also polite.

Sometimes family traditions are out of balance and only please one side of the family or one spouse or whatever. To fix this, ask what the other person would like to do for the holidays. Say something like: “Maybe we could figure out some new things we could do that we would all like and could do together. Then the kids and I could do the stuff we like without pushing you to be involved.”

Your spouse may never have thought about what he or she would like to do. I suggest not expecting an answer right away-maybe not even till next year. Just let him or her know you are interested in discussing it and open to change. People resist doing things they haven’t been involved in. Planning or contributing to an event can give them a sense of being valued and having some control.

One final point, without them being aware of it, some traditional activities may clash with issues of safety for survivors. For instance, if Vince Veteran never puts up the Christmas lights despite endless nagging, perhaps it is because in Vietnam the night belonged to Charlie.

By lighting up the house at night, he is attracting attention to his nearest and dearest, the kind of attention that could get you killed in Vietnam. Bringing this to consciousness–the need to keep the family safe–may help him get such a natural need met in a more appropriate way–like buying new tires for the car or better locks for the doors. Examining your traditions with that in mind can be rewarding.

Let go of outdated traditions or modify them to suit today. With our without the help of your survivor, you can sit down with whoever else in the family wants to celebrate.  Let go of what has become a burden or what you think others should do or you should do.

Discussing what the family might like to do can be empowering for your children because it gives them a chance to move on to more age appropriate activities as they grow up. This may be hard for the parents, but I suggest that you can hang your own stockings or have your own quiet holiday dinner.

Doing stuff for others. One veteran I know has been feeding the homeless for the last nine years on holidays.

If not this year, then in the future, rethink the things deemed as important.

Understand and practice the 5 Principles for the Every-Day Warrior:

The Past is Always Present:  As explained above, in memory networks that were installed long ago in childhood.

The Past is Subject to Change:  Rethink and rework practices of past traditions.  If they do not contribute to your family’s well-being or inspire well-doing, let them go.

We See Things not as They are, but as WE are:  Learn and practice empathy for the other.  Look beyond the needs of self and find meaning in new perspectives.

Mindfulness is Key to Achieving Balance.  Learn to be still.  Focus on the gift of the present and take comfort in simplicity.

Fitness of Mind and Body Assures Clarity in Thinking and Choices.  Get outside, move among others in ways that are mutually comforting.

Happy Holidays






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s