Helping a Loved One with PTSD During the Holidays

We are hustling quickly into the full swing of the holiday season. While this can be “the most wonderful time of the year” for most, it can also be the most triggering for individuals with PTSD and other trauma related disorders. Sure, most of us with a post traumatic condition can appreciate many of the sights, smells, and traditions of the holidays; however, it’s not uncommon for some of the celebrations and gatherings with families and friends can ultimately be overwhelming and over stimulating for survivors. The holidays can also cause us to be confronted with family members who may be the source of our trauma or others who have been less than supportive during our PTSD journey. Additionally, the holiday season is a relentless time of anxiety provoking expectations to break the bank for everyone and anyone you’ve ever met AND to be around people who may not be the best for your mental health. Further, Many survivors have past traumas linked to holidays which can layer in an entirely different dynamic of anxiety and depression.

This time of year can be brutal and exhausting. Trauma is as unique to each person as DNA. As trauma is perceptive, managing symptoms and entering recovery can sometimes feel like an endless trial and error endeavor. No single treatment plan will work for every person who has experienced trauma; however, there are many ways you can help a loved one manage their symptoms throughout the new year for a calm holiday season.

Encourage them to set boundaries ahead of time: Say it with me: You can say no. Christmas dinner means encountering a family member involved in your trauma? Sorry not sorry, we can make plans another time. Oh, the work holiday party is near the location where I was assaulted? Yikes, I have other plans that night. Feeling a panic attack coming along before you’re headed out? Throw on those pajamas and turn on Home Alone.

Help them practice their grounding techniques: Grounding techniques are strategies that encourage individuals with anxiety to stay in the present and get out of our heads. Grounding techniques help us focus on what we are physically feeling to ultimately bring back sensory and cognitive awareness to regain mental focus. The problem is that many of us struggle implementing these tools prior experiencing trauma- related symptoms. Practicing these strategies ahead of time creates muscle memory, so to speak. A few examples of grounding techniques include the 5-4-3-2-1 strategy, reorientation to your place and time, counting the red/ blue/ glitter objects in the room, star breathing, the grounding chair, physical movement, etc! The key is knowing what works for you prior to entering triggering situations. Practice makes perfect!

Physical self care: This might sound basic considering that we are discussing mental care, but it is critical to help your loved one make healthy choices to maintain their physical wellbeing. This means encouraging them to take in plenty of water and eating healthy meals (because none of us should be living off Christmas cookies alone!). Help your loved ones to avoid alcohol and other substances. As tempting as grandma’s spiked eggnog may be, indulging in tempting spirits can actually increase feelings of depression, anxiety, and vulnerability in situations that are already difficult. If your partner is taking medication for their trauma related condition, check in to make sure they are keeping up with their prescription. Lastly, remind them to breathe! You’d be surprised how many times we don’t realizing we are holding our breath when we feel overwhelmed. A simple whisper of “breathe” can remind us to breathe out the negative to relieve tension.

Allow them to have feelings: Trauma comes with a wide birth of feelings that range from anger to sadness to grief to paranoia. Remind your loved one that it’s okay to feel. Feel sad. Feel angry. Feel whatever you need to feel! Just try to not take our feelings personally. We are doing the best we can.

Allow them to have alone time: Speaking from personal experiences here guys. Getting through social gatherings in the holiday season is EXHAUSTING. Trying to be outgoing and polite while maintaining my mental and physical safety has me wanting to hibernate for about two months by the time I get home! The best thing my boyfriend has been able to offer me is alone time when I ask for it. Sometimes I need the sensory decompression to get back in a good headspace and refocus on what’s next.

Listen: When we’re ready, we might need to talk. And that’s on our time, not necessarily the schedule you’d like. We might vent. We might cry. We might process our fears or past traumas. And you know what, we might not make much sense at all. And that’s ok! Please listen with an open heart and mind. Don’t interject. Don’t try to rationalize the situation. Don’t make us feeling guilty. Don’t judge. Trust me, we judge ourselves enough.

We just need someone to hear our feelings and validate our concerns as legitimate. Seriously though- Boundaries and safety: There’s nothing more important than knowing when to say no to protect your physical and mental wellbeing. Take care, friends! Whether you’re enjoying or simply surviving the holidays, you’re not alone!

Sarah Deal is a licensed school counselor at an alternative education program in northern Virginia. She’s a trauma and crisis management specialist and survivor of PTSD. Her passions include empowering others with mental health conditions and chasing after her two princesses!

You can follow Sarah on Twitter here!

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