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Navigating through the holidays with PTSD

Posted on 12-17-14 in Mental Health

Navigating through the holidays with PTSD

While most folks are enjoying the holiday merriment, the hustle and bustle, parties and presents, people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are probably not. For someone in the early stages of recovering from a significant trauma, the holiday festivities may introduce triggers that can rip the scab right off their wound.

Sometimes it is ok to not participate in all the season’s social gatherings and rituals. When suffering from a trauma that has become PTSD, a period of time, possibly years, is required for the pain to diminish. The holidays can bring intense feelings of sorrow and loneliness, along with possibly reminders of the trauma itself. If the traumatizing event happened during a prior holiday season or was related in any way to this time of year, it can stir emotions and memories that can be paralyzing.

The last thing a person with PTSD needs is a bunch of friends and family members trying to cheer them up. Trying to coax some joy out of someone who is in a bad emotional state is not productive and will only cause them to be annoyed and recoil. All good intentions aside, it is best to respect the process of healing and allow that person the luxury of bowing out of the usual events if need be.

For the PTSD sufferer, it’s ok to make personal decisions about how to spend the holidays while grieving, suffering or trying to control anxiety. Know that any efforts loved ones make are from a place of love, and possibly a bit of ignorance. They can’t know what is going on thoroughly, and even though they long to “fix” the issues, they can be politely schooled.

This year, modifying holiday plans while grieving or going through treatment for PTSD will provide the best outcome. Here are some helpful suggestions:

  1. Avoid large crowds. Being amongst throngs of people can be stress-inducing, causing someone with PTSD to feel unsafe and anxious. It would be best to steer clear of these types of settings during the early stages of healing.
  2. Know your triggers. Being aware of triggers and having coping strategies ready, even written down and kept handy, will help navigate situations where stressors may rear their ugly heads.
  3. Be prepared to leave. If the holiday event elicits feelings of anxiety, anger, panic or any intense emotion, it is best to excuse yourself and go home to reclaim a sense of safety.
  4. Bring a supportive friend along. Sometimes just having someone around who understands your emotional state, knows the signs of anxiety and is sensitive enough to know when it is time to exit can take the fear out of attending a holiday event.
  5. Volunteer. Volunteering may provide more joy for those in recovery during the holidays. Helping others in a soup kitchen, passing out food at a pantry, delivering gifts to the needy, raising funds by ringing the bell for the Salvation Army – all of these activities feed the soul and promote joy during the season.

And for the loved ones who only want to help reduce the suffering, here are a few suggestions to help prepare to be of assistance to the trauma victim:

  1. Create a smaller event. Because crowds can bring on symptoms such as hyperarousal and hypervigilance in a PTSD patient, try to make a smaller scale holiday event this year. When making the invite list, only invite those people that the family member with PTSD is comfortable with and trusts.
  2. Be understanding. Know in advance that someone with PTSD has trouble feeling emotions of joy or happiness at the moment. Don’t take it personally if they seem glum or distant at your event or gathering, and avoid getting angry at them for their lack of enthusiasm.
  3. Limit alcohol. Alcohol is a notorious problem for people experiencing PTSD, especially if there are triggers present. It is best to limit their exposure to alcohol at holiday events.
  4. Keep communicating. Keep discussions open and frequent. Find out what they may need in order to attain a sense of comfort during this season. Ask them what their triggers are and, together, come up with some strategies to avoid them.
  5. Do something different this year. Maybe this is the year to change it up, keeping in mind that the usual large-scale event will not sit right with the loved one with PTSD. Instead, get a small group together and go to the movies, go to a boat parade, take a sleigh ride, bake holiday treats or drive around and look at Christmas lights. There are lots of alternative activities that will still include them, but may be less threatening.

There are ways to deftly navigate the unpredictable waters stirred up by PTSD during the holidays. With a little planning and lots of compassion, it is possible to put a little happy into the holidays.

Sovereign Health Group has residential treatment facilities for addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health disorders across the country, specializing in dual diagnosis. For information about our program, please call us at 866-524-5504.

Written by Eileen Spatz, Sovereign Health Group writer