Here’s the sad truth. PTSD often worsens during the holiday season. One would hope it was different, that holiday cheer, food, friends and good spirit would pop up like champagne on one of those commercials we see on TV where people are toasting each other, smiling and all looking fit, young and strong. But alas, it is not and here are some reasons why:
1) Holidays come with lots of triggers. We can be around too many people or too few. Even if we want to be with people, loneliness can be enhanced by the inability to connect in the midst of deep emotions such as fear, grief, or rage. There is no lonely like the lonely that comes in the midst of a group of friends or family.
2) We tend to eat foods that aggravate our nervous system. PTSD causes an inflammatory reaction in the body (see my HPA Axis posts). When we pile on the sugar, alcohol, fatty foods and just plain junk that pervades holiday fare our delicate and taxed nervous system can come under a lot of strain. Eating aggravates our anxiety, and anxiety aggravates our eating, repeating until New Year’s Resolutions come.
3) Feelings of self-loathing tend to emerge more strongly in holiday season. Perhaps we are trying to live up to an unattainable ideal of our religious faith or maybe proximity to family reminds us of our (and their) shortcomings. Whatever the reason, the phenomenon is real.
4) There is a lot of stimuli in the environment! Bright lights, flashing lights, loud music, smells, endless holiday music, crowded shopping environments all add to the load on the nervous system. Not to mention traveling on overcrowded airplanes and roads in dangerous weather. Not exactly a good environment for the hypervigilant and stressed.
If you think avoiding the holidays is easy, just watch the hilarious movie, Christmas with the Kranks. A lucky few might escape to Hawaii or a cruise but even then the holidays follow and are on our mind (if not our neighbors).
So, what to do? If you see a therapist and can afford it, scheduling extra sessions can be helpful. For those of us not lucky enough to have that resource, protection from the holiday barrage starts with our own awareness.
Pace yourself. Take some time every day to see what it is you do and don’t want to do. Say ‘no’ as often as you must. Stop worrying about hurting other people’s feelings, and focus on healing your own. Remind yourself that this, too, shall pass. For it will.
Better yet, dig down in yourself to find your own meaning of the holiday – whether it is about religion, vacation, or promoting your business, find the meaning that will be best for you.
Move into alignment with the season. In Chinese philosophy, winter is a time to move inside, to become dormant like the plants outside, resting so that our roots will be nourished and the plant flourish in the Spring. This is my favorite meaning of the winter holidays: renewal, self-nourishment, quiet companionship with those you love, sleep. Lots of sleep.
So here is my wish for you in the holiday and end of year time: Know when you are triggered and move to take care of yourself as needed. Cultivate compassion in your heart for yourself and others. Rest. Eat well. (And read The Trauma Tool Kit as needed.)