Navigating Seasonal Triggers: A Comprehensive Guide for Families Coping with PTSD and Holiday Stress

The holidays can be a surprisingly challenging time for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder. The more families know about their loved one’s distress, the more they can help to mitigate triggers and promote long-term recovery for everyone involved.

For many people, holiday traditions are comforting. But for someone whose life and way of existing in the world was irreparably altered following a traumatic experience, the expectations for a familiar repeat of the holidays past shines a painfully bright light on their distress and their inability to fit in. So, on top of always living on the edge as they continue to relive the trauma, someone with PTSD may feel increased shame, guilt, and lack of self-worth in the rather unhelpful light of the otherwise joyful holiday season.

But does it have to be this way for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder? Are there ways that we can learn to be aware and to mitigate holiday stress for someone with PTSD? Yes. It is a rather delicate process, as post-traumatic stress is a complex experience, but it is very possible to rein in PTSD triggers and holiday stress. When we can all remember that compassion and connection are at the heart of the holiday season, we can plan gatherings that welcome people as they are. With a greater understanding of one’s struggles with PTSD, we can facilitate their healing rather than aggravating their distress.

How Do PTSD Symptoms Interact with Holiday Stress?

On a normal day, someone with post-traumatic stress disorder has to work hard to cope with their discomfort when interacting with the people and things around them. But, during the holidays, this level of challenge is greatly exaggerated. It may be hard for the rest of us to imagine how such a light and joyful time of year could cause so much distress for someone else. But the original trauma this person went through—even if years or decades ago—was intense and unbearable. Even if they are already receiving professional treatment for their suffering, it can take a long time to process the trauma that is trapped in their mind and their body. If they aren’t receiving treatment, it’s very likely that the lingering trauma will actually continue to grow.

As much as they might want you to understand, it’s difficult for your loved one to try to explain what they’re going through. In fact, sharing their experiences may actually be a trigger that provokes their post-traumatic symptoms. It’s a confusing and unsettling corner to be stuck in. And there are much more visibility, pressure, and expectation during this time of year. It might seem like letting this person avoid the holiday events altogether would be the least harmful course of action. But isolation is not ultimately supportive, and it sets a dangerous precedent for the future. No, this holiday season is the time for the whole family to turn a corner toward unconditional compassion and active understanding.

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How Can Families Plan to Mitigate Triggers and Holiday Stress?

Ignoring or neglecting your family member’s struggle is one of the worst things you can do. Fortunately, as you take steps to create a welcoming holiday experience, you don’t have to do it alone.

Learn About What PTSD Is and What Your Loved One Is Going Through

While it might seem a bit counterproductive in this place and time, your loved one’s post-traumatic stress disorder is trying to protect them. Their subconscious mind is on high alert for any hints of danger to prevent a repeat of the distress that occurred with the original trauma. Unfortunately, this defense mechanism has some maladaptive flaws, and the person can experience retraumatization at the sign of any potential danger, however small.

As you might imagine, asking the person to talk about their trauma—from the past or in the present—can easily trigger their PTSD symptoms. So, it’s important to seek information about trauma disorders and to learn how to talk to them without triggering retraumatization. These steps build an extremely important foundation for supporting your loved one with PTSD through the holidays and always.

Be Flexible and Willing to Adapt the Holiday Plans

Traditions are special because they bring people together year after year, but what if a tradition is actually excluding or retraumatizing someone instead? Ideally, you and your loved one with PTSD can meet more-or-less in the middle. If they have the support of a clinical care team, they have likely already been preparing to manage triggers and to communicate with the family about what they need. At times, they may need to pass on certain activities that may be overwhelming—or simply because they need a rest. At other times, they may just need certain accommodations in order to participate. They may need certain topics of conversation to be off the table or for people to take interpersonal conflicts somewhere else. And once you talk to an expert about your loved one’s PTSD, you’ll feel better prepared to talk to your loved one about what they really need.

Get Help for the Whole Family

Professional treatment is primarily for the person with post-traumatic stress disorder, but it is also for the rest of the family. Mental disorders affect everyone involved, and the holidays are a time to be especially aware and proactive about the possibilities for healing.

The bottom line is that long-term treatment is critical for someone’s recovery from PTSD. There is always a great risk of retraumatization if someone isn’t supported by knowledgeable therapists. Treatment can help a person to gradually reconstruct their relationship to the trauma and to feel prepared with positive coping strategies to manage potential triggers in the future. Treatment includes family and friends, too, in supportive therapy to educate and empower you to support your loved one’s continued healing. Together, you can create a new tradition of open-hearted acceptance of everyone’s individual experience and growth.

If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with complex mental health illnesses and co-occurring disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.