The Christmas season is jammed full of rituals – traditions – anniversaries. And it comes embedded with prompts, explosions of memory, chaos and stress.  Christmas, unlike many ordinary days, hits our sense of smell, our sense of taste, what we see, the songs we hear. It may be 2018, but to your nose, or your taste buds or your ears – it may suddenly be 1975, or 1994 or 2007.

Time travel at the holidays is true for everyone, but if you have experienced significant loss or trauma it is faster because the memories connected to the songs, or tastes or smells were highly charged. They left a more solid imprint.

For many trauma survivors, Christmas becomes a problem of ‘presence’; you live in two worlds even more than you usually do. The world of the present and the world of the past seem to constantly collide, with the past just as present at times as the now.

Perhaps the memories would be easier to hold if there wasn’t the constant pressure to not only hold them but to be happy the whole damn time. It’s this awful juxtaposition of internal reality (scarcity and loss) and external expectation (abundance and joy). You sit in the presence of beauty – decorated trees, attractive parcels, and piles of decadent food. But feelings of  deficiency are all you can access in the moment. And it is very likely no one can tell.

For people who have experienced significant loss, scarcity equals absence. Every Christmas marks another occasion where someone or something is missing. 

Know this: you are not alone. If you took a moment to look around your Christmas table, you could probably identify a fellow pilgrim. A grandparent traumatized by the violence and scarcity of war, a parent stunted by childhood loss, a cousin healing from wounds caused by an accident, a friend haunted by an abusive relationship.

Society tells us the cure is just ‘move on’ but it is a much more difficult task than that. We need to recognise our past hurts and hold them in the present, instead of involuntarily being hauled back to the past and projecting into the now.

That means, firstly, identifying your triggers*. Trauma expert, Janina Fisher, explains triggers in this way: “[They] are like little psychic explosions that crash through avoidance and bring the dissociated trauma suddenly, unexpectedly, back into consciousness – complete with all the bodily reactions and emotions that we would have had at the time. In the blink of an eye we are catapulted into a fight-flight-or-freeze response.” 

 A trigger might be a sight, a sound, a taste, a smell, a touch — in other words, some form of sensory input — or it might be something about the situation we’re in (such as being powerless, being in some way ‘in trouble’ or feeling shamed), a location, a look (non-verbal), even a body position (such as lying down) .

Take some time to list all the things that you react to at Christmas. Janina says if you’re not sure, think about the things you try to avoid. 

Second, attach an emotion to each trigger: shame, disappointment, unworthiness, rejection, hurt, powerlessness, and so on. Janina says you must approach this step with “curiousity.” How did this help you survive? (Yes, your brain is genius!)

Somatic Attachment and Trauma Specialist Diane Poole Heller recommends ‘resourcing’as the next step. Resourcing is a highly-valued exercise whereby you gather allies and any aids, then place them in what Diane terms your ‘oasis.’

  • Install competent protectors. If real life isn’t an option, consider characters from movies, books or superheroes. (Note: You can add you, your adult self, as a competent protector as well.) Think about where you would like your protectors located – behind you, to your side? What do you notice — in your body, emotions, thoughts?
  • Identify aids. This may be noise-cancelling headphones, sensory supports, nurturing pet, a quiet space for retreat;anything that may help to protect yourself when you feel triggered. These aids may be imaginary (giant air bubble, deflective shield, space ship) or physical.

With the groundwork complete, you are ready to tackle that family get-together or holiday event. Well…almost! Diane has a few more pointers for you:

  • Imagine what sitcom you feel you are walking into. Look at your family members as characters. This helps to have a little more compassion, but mostly you take on a witnessing role rather than engaging in provocative behaviour. This will help create emotional distance.
  • Staying in a hotel or rented property instead of the family home, can also help create physical distance.Meeting in a neutral location such as a restaurant may also be beneficial.
  • If you feel triggered Diane says, “slow down and be present.” She recommends you first check-in with your feet (feel them grounded on the floor…you are here in the present not the past). Then spend a few moments just noticing what is happening in your body. Is there heat in your head (anger) or is your stomach wobbly (fear)? You notice, you breathe, you acknowledge, you hold, you sit.
  • Once you have done this, move to your resources. This might be moving to sit next to an ally who is able to offer reassurance. Or you may have a code word that you use to communicate to ally that you are overwhelmed. And don’t forget to make use of your aids to help you through. (Even if that means putting a family member in space and moving him to another galaxy; figuratively speaking!)
  • Try to let in 1 percent or 10 percent more. You can use moments that of discomfort that flare up as a way to help yourself . Check in and say, “What is happening for me now? Too close? Too much? Not enough? Difficulty receiving? Difficulty giving” and so on. Even a tiny bit more is a corrective experience, which is invaluable to healing. (Don’t forget to notice the corrective experience; because the more we notice, the more likely our brain will log it.)

*If it is your child who is triggered, use the same techniques; but you are the coach.

(c) Fel Stewart, 2018