Loosening the Grip of PTSD at the Holidays

Cemetery grave garland wreathIdeally, the holidays are a time for sharing love with friends and family. For many, the holidays bring parties, sharing gifts, being around friends, family, and people who may be new to one’s circle of friends. The list of the “ideal” holiday time and the “holiday spirit” goes on and on.

People dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often share a different experience. Being around people is the last thing some people want to do. Because PTSD is connected with the flight or fight response, people often avoid parties, places where they do not feel safe, or people they don’t feel safe with. Some also avoid people so they won’t get into trouble by hurting anyone. People and places bring about old memories. If one is really suffering, socializing isn’t an option. Holidays are often times of despair and depression. Holidays are also a time when suicide rates spike and emergency rooms fill up with failed attempts. This sounds bleak; however, despair, pain, and suffering often go hand in hand with those who suffer from PTSD—especially around the holidays.

The good news is there is a road out of suffering, if one is willing to do the work! My son once told me, “If I have to live another 40-50 years, I’m not going to be miserable.” The same was true for me, as it is true for other PTSD survivors. For me, I was getting to the point where I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Many of the people I have helped have come to the same conclusion and became willing to take the road toward recovery. Many had to get to an emotional bottom, and deal with a lot of suffering, before the surrender flag was raised and real recovery began. There is a road. It is quite painful and bumpy at first, but there is a road!

Holidays also bring up memories of life before PTSD, when survivors had good holidays with family and friends and felt comfortable with socializing. Many PTSD survivors become hypervigilant and easily aroused, with similar events bringing about thoughts of the past or even hallucinations related to the trauma. This is exemplified by one person with many losses who thought she was psychotic because she was seeing “spirits of deceased family members.” Yes, this could be psychosis, but it could also be intrusive images related to trauma.

The following are some real stories where identities have been protected and the writer has been granted releases to share how choosing the road to recovery has helped them through another Christmas or Holiday season. The people I work with and the people I have helped have a common mission: getting out of oneself, and helping others, practicing daily relaxation exercises, daily affirmations, and an emphasis on being safe. The people who are sharing parts of their stories believe their experience and how they are coping may be helpful to others. They also believe PTSD is, at times, a matter of life or death and what they share may prevent a suicide. Each experience demonstrates how they have each grown through therapy, enabling them to have a better holiday experience this year.

The first case is someone I have been working with for eight months. In just a few months she has tragically lost four significant people in her life due to accidents. Until recently, she has been numb to the pain. She is hypervigilant, becomes startled very easily, and works from sun-up to the time she goes to bed at night. She also suffers from insomnia. I have worked with her on using relaxation techniques, but relaxing and shutting her mind down is extremely frightening for her.

Yesterday, she told me she dreads the New Year holiday because she is afraid she is now going to die, and this will be her last New Year’s Eve. The losses she experienced this year brought up trauma from long ago, when she was sexually assaulted and when her father was murdered. I reframed how she looks at relaxation and hypnosis. She has agreed to practice structured breathing exercises for relaxation. She is looking at this exercise as “training her mind to respond.” To help her through the holidays, she is focusing on her grandchildren and ensuring they have a good Christmas. She was able to agree that by focusing on her grandkids, she doesn’t focus on herself and her own hurt. Her positive self-talk is helping her believe she deserves to be happy. Yesterday she stated, “It’s time for me to surrender and learn how to live again.”

Bottom line is, she reached an emotional bottom that brought her to a fork in the road. She chose to live life! The resistance to work on herself has lightened. She has discovered that focusing on her grandchildren is getting her out of herself, and is helping her cope better this holiday season.

Another person was in a “depressed spiral around the holidays.” She was deep in PTSD symptoms from early childhood abuse and failed relationships which “tore her heart out.” Her PTSD became worse at Thanksgiving. Due to current financial trauma, she faced more losses: job, housing, and separation from her children. But this time she changed her attitude and actions. Packing to move, job hunting, and volunteering with her children’s school have all helped her to fill her time and her mind with positive activities. She has found a road out of trouble (PTSD) and is willing to take it! She has stepped back from her reactions into a new response. That has made all the difference in her life. From a new beginning, she has started down the right road. Her progress is not always continuous, but she is learning to turn toward her new responses and behaviors when she feels threatened by the past. When she got to the point of no return and hit an emotional bottom, she began helping others and doing the work along the bumpy road to recovery. She turned her scars into stars!

My clients have told me that because I am a PTSD survivor and a psychotherapist I am more effective than other therapists they have tried. What I teach is to feel safe, help others, practice daily meditation or hypnosis, and always have a plan-B escape route. For example, if you know you will be attending a holiday party where you could be triggered, plan an effective way to get home.

Happy holidays to all! Most of importantly, be easy on yourself, be safe, try to help others, and develop a plan-B!

© Copyright 2009 by John Lee. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • kelly T.

    December 21st, 2009 at 5:24 PM

    I think if someone is too cautious about socializing, he/she should start with being a part of small gatherings and numbers can be increased as the healing process is taking further, and there is no better time to do this than the holiday season.

  • John Lee

    December 22nd, 2009 at 10:29 AM

    You are right! Recovery begins wih small steps. With PTSD there are any memories that can be triggered and feeling safe with the small group is paramont! Plus haveing a plan B

  • Cyndi

    November 28th, 2012 at 10:24 AM

    Wow, I really enjoyed reading your article..You offer so much hope! You put a bounce and a skip in my steps!

  • Anna

    December 6th, 2014 at 2:42 PM

    I’ve lost 2 sons my Arturo of 17 yrs of age to a fiery car crash in 2001 , my son Sammy was murdered at the age of 32 in 2012 I became a caregiver I work with the elderly I find that is like medicine for my soul its helping me heal I feel it’s my calling I still have my breakdowns at times I’m in tears for my sons helping others does a lot for me god bless us I didn’t know I had ptsd until I read this 🙏 God is my strength and my salvation I couldn’t feel the floor when I walked I say it was then God carried me I have shortness of breath a lot still thanks for allowing me to post story

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