Holiday triggers and being a loved one of a trauma survivor

Imagine the following. . .

You go to a holiday dinner (online or in person) where you know your loved one is going to be in the same room with someone who caused them harm.

You have to figure out a way to decline a holiday invitation because even phone or email contact is overwhelming for your partner.

You see your partner/friend sitting in a frozen state at the holiday dinner table (or in front of the computer screen). Noticing the signs of shut down, you create an excuse to make a hasty exit with them. And you have to explain to your children why you cannot stay while fending off questions and comments from the other guests.

Your loved one is very upset or withdrawn in the hours or days following the event. Normally effective grounding strategies do not seem to be enough and because it’s the holidays, their mental health or medical practitioner is unavailable.

You reach out to a friend for support. While the friend means well, they might say ‘maybe you should consider leaving the relationship if it’s this hard on you.’

*These scenarios are examples only.

Imagine the after effect

You feel frightened

  • What happened?
  • Will there be repercussions from the event host or other guests?

You feel overwhelmed

  • What is going to happen now?
  • Will my partner be okay? (You remember they do not have access to their therapist for another two weeks because it’s the holidays.)
  • Why do I feel unstable too?

You feel angry because of the incident – but then you reason: I shouldn’t feel this way.

You feel alone

  • Does this happen to anyone else?
  • Who else can I talk to?

Your don’t feel well physically

  • You feel dizzy and tense.
  • Your thoughts are foggy.
  • Your stomach is upset.
  • You don’t sleep well.

Holiday posts and triggers

With the holidays on hand, there are many posts about managing holiday triggers for trauma survivors -and so there should be. Holidays are challenging for several reasons including contact with people not normally seen, irregular schedules, and extra pressures. The potential for overwhelm and a resurgence of trauma symptoms needs to be taken seriously.

However, what is often missing from the conversation about holiday triggers is the impact on supporters ( family or friends) and why they need support too. While the supporter(s) may not directly experience the triggers, they do experience the ripple effect of those triggers. As the scenarios suggest, there is an impact that deserves attention.

Reasons supporters need to be included in the discussion:

Each person’s nervous system is impacted by stress and supporters need time and space to self-regulate too. However, what may occur during a crisis situation is the supporter’s needs are paused in order to give support to the person needing urgent care.

The holidays are demanding. Even with excellent boundaries, there is extra pressure simply from the nature of the season.

The supporter may enter the holidays in a state of depletion. Low mental and physical reserves are not uncommon when supporting a family member with trauma.

Supporters also experience holiday triggers. If there is not adequate space to manage internal stress from their own triggers, it may spill onto others.

Supporters may not have access to an understanding other. This sense of isolation is also overwhelming.

A supportive other can be instrumental in providing stability to their loved one. We need to expand the discussion of triggers to support these important people during the holidays and all year.

How can the discussion of holiday triggers expand to include supporters?

While many of my blog and social media posts discuss this need in greater detail, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Recognize the important role the partner, the friends and the family unit play.
  2. Recognize supporters need grounding strategies tool. If you provide resources to a survivor, perhaps pass them onto the supporter.
  3. Don’t assume the individual supporter knows how to handle situations when a loved one is overwhelmed (most don’t).
  4. Don’t assume the couple knows what to do when there is overwhelm.
  5. If specific holiday strategies are developed between the survivor and a mental health practitioner, please share them with their supporter.

For partners/supporters:

  1. The same grounding techniques that work for survivors can also work for you.
  2. If you have specific holiday strategies for yourself, please share them with the person you are supporting.
  3. Work small moments of self-care into your day.
  4. Practice and enhance your personal support strategies year round.
  5. Explore my blog posts to learn more.

Finally, it is helpful if both people can, together, plan and prepare for holiday scenarios ahead of time. The reality is, however, that triggers can happen even with the best laid plans.

I believe expanding the discussion around holiday triggers to include supporters will help both survivors and supporters. After all, decreasing stress lessens the potential of triggers for all.

Isn’t it time to include supporters?