The holidays can be a difficult time. Socially we are faced with stressors to present as joyful engaged and happy while triggers for stress and loss surrounds us. Holidays can be seen as an opportunity to be extra mindful of our feelings and to give yourself permission to connect with energy that fills us instead of the depleting our recourses and leaving us low.
When we celebrate a special time and make it meaningful we attach memories and feelings to it these serve as reminders for both good times and bad. When we go through trauma or loss, the people that hurt us, the ones that failed to protect us and the ones we loved and abandoned us - even if their leaving us was not out of choice like death, illness, accident, incarceration - the holiday is a trigger for loss. Loss can also be triggered within ourselves - partners we are no longer with, injuries of trust in our relationships, friends we disconnected from, places and things we are no longer a part of. We constantly change and lose parts of ourselves and the holiday can remind us of the past often in the way we remember it at this moment and not necessarily as the full realistic event. Our feeling at the moment colors it or the fantasy and craving for something else we wish. For individuals in recovery the holiday adds a challenge of environment where people use to celebrate- using to escape the triggered hurt or using for the illusion of connecting with happiness and joy otherwise believed to be unachievable.
Preparation for the holiday can be full of stress too, financially, socially but particularly around relationships, stress that easily turns into worries, agitation, tension and conflicts. Family get together or the absence of such events can easily send our mind spiraling into thoughts of loss, hopelessness, desperation and resentment. If we are not mindful of our thoughts and choices around this time it is easy to slip into a dark place where we create damage in our life. The darkness outside during November-December also impacts our mood and is another reminder of how active we must be in being mindful of the choices we make around this time- in this example seeking hours of sun light. Mindfulness calls to intention, active attentive and directed focus when we experience our feelings, our thoughts and our every day being in our actions in the world, alone and with others.
There is hope- the awareness of Holiday's being a challenging time and the preparation for it can make a worlds of difference. Your safety comes first we want to make sure you do not harm yourself or loved ones. Having a safety plan and resources to contact in case thoughts of harm to self and others come to mind is essential (call 911 immediately if you are thinking of harming yourself or others and see helpful links). In therapy take the time to think of your safety plan, the people you can reach out to and planning your holiday activities and schedule to support us being mindful of feelings and mind.
We want our relationships to be safe too - so preparing with our loved ones; having a conversation about the challenging situations, people and things; discussing possible triggers (for example your mother-in-law coming over or a favorite food being a trigger for past trauma), this also includes preparing for possible unseen triggers and having a exit strategy if you need to take time away and take care of yourself. a word or a small can be triggering and if something anything at all triggers feelings of sadness, worry , fear, hurt, despair or desire to use alcohol or drugs or abuse ourselves or others- we have an obligation to protect ourselves and others- so give yourself permission to self care: excuse yourself from the place/ person/ things that trigger. you can just say " I am feeling____ and need to go outside for 10 minutes". You can also have previously discussed sign with your friend/loved one that you discussed triggers with- so they know what is going on with you and what you need from them/ for example if you scratch your head your partner knows you are triggered by mom and need him to go with you outside
Have a list ready of things that help to bring your mind back to the moment. when we are triggered our mind disconnects from the feeling in the moment, from the experience within our body and goes into future worries. Past hurts leave us numb and vulnerable. We want to be mindful of our thoughts and feelings, bringing ourselves back into this moment so we can take care of ourselves. start with 3 deep breaths, slowly into the stomach. Use grounding skills practiced in treatment - focusing on the senses experience as detailed as possible. Use thoughts and images soothing and relaxing to you, words of inspiration that calm your fear and satisfy your need. Plan ahead and bring with you music that helps you to calm down, a mediation you can practice, and game you can play to distract from the triggers and return to your core, a notebook to write in, a pencil and paper to draw, colors and coloring books to color (adults versions are out there), and anything else that comes to mind that helps you relax and stay connected with yourself.
These types of coping skills can be identified and mastered in therapy but if you are not in treatment consider the holiday a reminder of work that needs to be done. Therapy can help you not only survive the holiday - therapy can help you grow and transcend the loss that is triggered, the trauma and hurt that comes to mind, the difficulty and conflict in the relationship and the risk of losing what you have.
For couples the holidays bring challenges of both individuals coming together- now you have your partner's stress and triggers to have in mind. Many couples have fights around this time and feel pressured to test the relationship's strength. Family and friends might add additional stress offering judgment and interpretations. Intimacy can be challenging when you are at a different place around other people and public expressions of affection, reassurances of love and attempts at reparation after a conflict can be difficult to manage.
Plan for time alone as a couple (even if it's just 5 min away from the family- set a time for it). Try to discuss possible challenges like- sleeping arrangement and kissing next to the dinner table before the holiday. Discuss possible couple triggers that can make you feel rejected, hurt, abandoned (last year's conflict with dad/ grandmother interfering with the children and so on) and make a plan to cope together as a couple. For example- if I try to kiss you and you look away I feel angry and rejected so this time we will kiss before going to the table away from the family and if it happens that you look away I will tell you I'm hurt and we both agree to take 5 min outside the house to talk about it. couples in therapy can plan for possible triggers understanding the underlying hurt and injury that is triggered.
Couple's therapy can be a place to explore these conflicts and understand what is triggered underneath. It is a place to look at unmet needs and voice them with our partner, a place to develop the intimacy and connection and built the relationship strength.
By Shir Shanun, Psy.D. and Almog Shanun LMFT