Tips for Facing the Holidays for Sexual Abuse Survivors

Trauma survivors are made particularly anxious by the hoopla around the holidays.

Because of the fear and pain created by emotional and physical abuse, the nervous system of a trauma survivor is already on high alert, armed to scan and protect from potential danger.

The extra stress of social gatherings (even happy gatherings) with the accompanying sensory and emotional inputs inflames a nervous system whose set point is already uncomfortably high.

The sensory input at a social gathering is challenging. The accompanying noise of multiple conversations, loud laughter, small and larger disagreements, the smell of alcohol and food, watching and participating in overeating and overspending, the lighting: all challenge the nervous system’s ability to filter out this input and remain within a comfortable emotional range. The sensory input – and even “just” the over-stimulated feeling state – can trigger emotional and episodic memories of physical and emotional abuse.

Going back to see people who know about (even if they are kind and understanding) or back to a place where emotional or physical abuse occurred can initiate a cascade of emotional and episodic memories. A confusing mix of anxiety, anger and shame will usually accompany the memories. This can be overwhelming and initiate the physiological responses of fight, freeze, flight and even faint.

So please try and understand why the holidays are tough for trauma survivors.

My clients say these things are what makes them most anxious about family gatherings:

  • fears that family members will belittle them for their feelings
  • shame about what happened to them in the past
  • being overwhelmed by sensory input (noise, smells, lights)
  • angry discussions about politics or family matters fueled by alcohol
  • feelings of being cornered and trapped and like they can’t get away.

The following suggestions have been gleaned from hours of therapy sessions with my clients who are childhood sexual abuse/abuse (CSA) survivors. They are wise people who’ve worked to learn to hear their inner voices and honor their needs.

We’ve discussed how guilt and wanting to please others might get in the way of their ability to take a break from the festivities, practice self-awareness and send-care and step away.

  • PRACTICE SELF-CARE! It’s ok!
  • Reframe guilt about needing to limit holiday time as your need for healthy boundaries to protect your emotional health
  • When feelings of shame come up, take a break, practice kind self-talk and self-kindness. If you need to step away, do so.
  • If you have a partner or a spouse who is part of the festivities, enlist their support a few weeks before the event(s). Don’t wait until the last minute to discuss these issues, as they can be emotional.
  • Develop your plan to limit the amount of time spent at a family gathering.
  • Bring your IPAD and take a break in another room to decompress.
  • Be choosy about the invitations you accept: limit them severely
  • 2 or 3 events a week for 2 -3 weeks (added to regular work & family schedule) will likely add up to too much stimulation for your nervous system
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink, or make an explicit decision to drink only water / juice
  • If the sensory input gets to be too much, literally quietly exit the room and go to a quiet place. Go for a walk.
  • Have a preset time you are going to leave plus a preset reason for doing so, to use if you are pressed to stay. Make something up. No need to have a long discussion about your mental and emotional health. Work this out in advance with any one who is accompanying you. And just stick to it.
  • If you feel yourself dissociating, practice your go to grounding exercise. An easy one is 5 Sensory Things (Touch, See, Hear, Feel, See Something)

Some other self-care articles you might enjoy:

Five Easy Meditations

Research: Small Everyday Pleasures Make a Difference

Self Care: Essential Oils for Emotional Support

DBT Emotion Regulation Skills

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