While most adults experience a certain degree of stress over the holidays, that stress can be greatly increased for those with unresolved trauma.
Those caring in some way for them can benefit from a few tips on how to respond in trauma-informed ways to those who have been trauma-impacted.
Because stress levels are increased during holidays, some of the typical trauma-related behaviors can become more extreme. The two most common behaviors that those with unresolved trauma exhibit are hyper-arousal and dissociation. Hyper-arousal is being extremely aware of everything going on around you and feeling like danger lurks in every corner of your world so you have to be on high alert virtually all the time. Dissociation is when the brain and mind check out and leave the person in a place of unawareness, being distant and removed from life.
Both of these symptoms of unresolved trauma can exist for a trauma-impacted person, or that person may demonstrate one more so over the other. Regardless, someone who is a support person for a trauma-impacted adult can be attuned to these behavioral responses and consider what are healthy and less healthy responses.
When an adult or anyone with unresolved trauma goes into a dissociative state in response to being overwhelmed by external stimuli, it is as if their brain recognizes that they need to shut down to avoid all emotions. This person can seem so disengaged that others feel they are being slighted or ignored. The highly dissociative person can appear disinterested and disrespectful.
The trauma-informed person responds to someone who is highly dissociative by not being critical (“What’s the matter with you? You seem so out of it. It’s embarrassing! You need to be more social. Everyone thinks you’re avoiding them. You are embarrassing me!”) Rather they need to be gentle and appreciative. Maybe the trauma-informed person gently invites the dissociative person to take a real break by going outside or getting away from others in order to have a chance to internally regroup. Sometimes it helps if they hear the trauma-informed person affirm that it can be hard to pay attention and be engaged when all you want to do is shut down. (“Being around all these people can make you feel like you just want to run away. That’s normal, especially if you are having a lot of memories of times that were not exactly happy for you. It’s okay to shut down for a while and even step out of the room if that makes you feel more comfortable. I am happy to kind of protect you from other people expecting you to be more engaged.”)
The hyper-aroused person usually becomes annoyed or angry more quickly than someone who is not dealing with trauma-related issues. When that adult sees what is deemed dangerous or disrespectful, the reaction can be immediate and very intense. This is especially true with children who are much more stressed or just excited because of all that the holidays can mean. So it is a potentially explosive situation. Hyper-aroused parents who become more easily provoked when a child makes a typical error in judgment or acts impulsively often initiate a whole series of interactions that can end in greatly exaggerated emotional outbursts on the parts of the adult and the child.
Have you ever observed a situation where a somewhat out-of-control child who does something inappropriate like acting out, is too loud, is very energetic or breaks family roles for good behavior because they are overwhelmed by their own high levels of excitement? And what if that child also has a trauma-impacted parent, who is overly reactive because they are probably hyper- aroused too which leads to less tolerance with these kinds of behaviors? It’s easy to see how these situations can get totally out of control, escalating negative emotions and behaviors. Often the results are very damaging to one or both individuals and to the relationship.
Instead of responding in a situation like this with criticism towards one or both individuals, it is better to be very calm and assertive. You could something like, “Wow, kids over the holidays can sure act crazy sometimes. It can get on your last nerve. How about I take Johnny outside for a little while and help him burn off some energy from all the stress. That might give you a chance to take a few deep breaths, so you can feel a little calmer. We both know you have had some pretty negative things happen in your life and it’s really easy for your buttons to get pushed.”
Sometimes all it takes is somebody who is gentle and understanding to prevent a potentially volatile situation from escalating. Being a quiet voice of reason and authority can help the trauma-impacted adult who may feel very out of control to become more regulated. It is a gift to someone who struggles with their trauma-related symptoms to have others care in these ways.
Invitation to Reflect
- If you are someone who supports a trauma-impacted person, think about the times when you have noticed that person being more hyper-aroused or dissociative than you might expect. How does it make you feel? How might you use some of these suggestions to enhance the ways you relate to that person in order to promote greater safety in your relationship and help the person manage their holiday stresses?
- If you have unresolved trauma, how often do you feel somewhat out-of-control during the holidays, more easily provoked, more on edge, less able to stay regulated or you mentally shut down in order to escape all the stress? How can it help you to understand that these can be normal trauma-related symptoms? In what ways can you help yourself or ask for help to manage some of the symptoms?