When Christmas is a Trauma Trigger

When Christmas is a Trauma Trigger December 10, 2019

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Christmas can be a significant trauma trigger, especially for anyone who has been through religious trauma. If we’re already dealing with PTSD or trying to heal from our trauma, it’s not surprising the holiday season could affect us.

Dealing with Difficult Memories

People tend to get nostalgic around Christmas. We may find ourselves reflecting on old memories. Some of those memories may be painful because we remember being hurt. Other memories may be painful because we’re remembering something, or someone, we’ve lost. This can be especially difficult if we’re thinking of happy memories with people we’ve had to cut out of our lives, whether those people are family members or people a toxic church community we’ve left.

Feelings of Guilt

Christmas can bring up feelings of guilt, especially for people who’ve endured religious trauma. If we have decided to deviate from how our toxic church communities observed Christmas in the past, it can stir up all sorts of emotions. We might feel guilty or afraid because we’re “breaking the rules.” We might experience panic about what sort of judgment God has in store for us. The truth is, God understands how hard it is to leave unhealthy religious practices and work toward finding a healthier way of expressing our faith. He isn’t going to smite a hurting person over Christmas traditions.

Setting Boundaries

As we go through the healing process, we learn how to set healthy boundaries. However, some people in our lives will see our healthy boundaries as a direct challenge to their authority or as a personal attack on them. If you choose not to attend Christmas Eve dinner with your emotionally abusive family members, they will likely push back. You don’t owe anyone your presence or your energy, but it’s still difficult to deal with the backlash that can come with setting those boundaries and undoing a lifetime of dysfunctional familial conditioning.

Feeling Conflicted

It’s normal to feel conflicted about Christmas if you’ve endured trauma, and it’s even more expected if you’ve endured religious trauma. You may be struggling with your faith, feeling angry, or grieving for the life you had. You might not be sure if you’ll be up for attending any religious services. You might not want to observe Christmas at all. If you aren’t sure how you feel about the holiday, that’s OK.

Managing Our Emotions

When dealing with a trauma trigger, it can be hard to scale our emotions appropriately. If we add the pressure and stress of the holidays onto that, it can be even more difficult. We may find ourselves snapping at others. We might experience emotional reactions that are out of proportion to what’s actually happening in the moment. It’s important to understand these are reactions born out of trauma. If we overract in the moment, we should acknowledge the overreaction and apologize to anyone who bore the brunt of it.

Missing Toxic People

It’s one thing to realize we’re in a toxic environment. It’s another thing to leave that environment behind. Untangling yourself from a toxic religious environment can be painful and isolating. When your main source of community is your church, and you leave that church, you wind up losing your community as well. Just because you can’t be around some of those people anymore (because you made a choice to remove yourself or because they made a choice to shun you for not toeing the line), doesn’t mean you won’t miss them. The holidays can bring this sense of loneliness to the surface, even if you’ve been coping fairly well the rest of the year.

How to Observe Christmas

You can observe Christmas in whatever way is healthiest for you. You don’t have to cave to other people’s demands. You don’t have to see anyone who has hurt you. You don’t have to go anywhere that would cause you pain.

If you have children, and you’re trying to balance your own mental well-being with your children’s enjoyment, remember that this is just one Christmas out of many. If moving an elf around your house is going to cause you additional stress, just don’t do it. Make sure you aren’t putting too much pressure on yourself. Don’t worry about what other families are doing. Do what’s healthiest for you and yours.

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