Most of us are steeped in holiday preparations. This is a time in which stress is high and money concerns abound. People are consumed with finding the right gifts. The stores are packed with frantic shoppers and expectations about family commitments and celebrations are high. While we revel in the wonder of the holidays with our children, we are touched by stories of people giving, sharing and helping those in need. I love to hear of individuals who have anonymously paid layaway accounts so challenged families can have the kind of Christmas they were longing for. How cool is that?
Being sensitive to those who are distressed during the holidays
The holidays also are a time of mixed emotions for many people. This time of year can trigger anxious or depressing memories or worse. They can create traumatic emotional reactions.
Those of us who are in the people-helping field recognize—even anticipate—that many of our clients who have been doing well may suddenly implode and regress during this season. Like a pendulum, some individuals may experience times of joy as well as deep sadness. For them, it feels rather strange to celebrate faith, family and fun and simultaneously recognize a degree of loss or grief. Yet, here is where information about trauma can help us understand these mixed emotions and be sensitive to those who may experience the season in this way.
People store traumatic memories
We recognize that people store traumatic memories. That includes traumatic events as well the loss of key people in their lives. The loss could have occurred due to death, relational discord, divorce or other circumstances but can leave them with strong memories.
Since past holidays were times in which special moments may have been shared with those now lost, the holiday itself becomes a trigger that opens the person again to that loss, anxiety, or anger. Some people have significant loyalties to these past events or relationships that can cause them guilt. They may blame themselves because those people are no longer in their lives. Others may remember the past and lament what they should have had and were deprived of. For them, good things about the holidays may cause them to feel angry.
It is confusing to try to figure it all out. But one thing we know is that when we are aware of the feelings we are processing, we can better understand and cope simply because we recognize the underlying trigger. Even though those circumstances may involve sad memories, we do not have to fall victim to them or victimize others.
Help someone understand the cause for distress
For those experiencing trauma during the holidays, there is probably a legitimate reason for their distress. If you (or someone you know) are experiencing deep mixed emotions, try to talk to someone who can help you make sense of these feelings.
Lend a listening ear to a friend or family member who is going through a challenging time during the holiday season. You may be able to help him understand why he feel the way he does, which will certainly help him feel normal and more at ease.
Once the person realizes the reason for distress, he/she can clarify it from a perspective of what is true and what is not. Clarity offers the person a much better understanding and validation of his/her feelings and provides a means to cope. As a result, when the person feels he/she can cope, the holidays are likely to be more enjoyable.
While emotions can be traumatic for some, if we remain aware as we surround ourselves with good friends and family, we can talk through some tougher issues with those we trust. These discussions offer us new appreciation and a way to care for one another. What better gift can we give our friends and family members than genuine support that endures even difficult moments?
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network