By Stefanie F. Smith —
The holiday season calls for us to be trauma sensitive. This time of year can be very difficult for far too many people, especially those who have survived or are surviving trauma. Family gatherings may expose survivors to those who were the cause of their trauma or to those who were unsupportive of disclosures.
Holidays can be anniversaries of past traumatic experiences. Conversations and media images about homes where families decorate, celebrate, cook, and share memories can trigger people to remember what does not exist or didn’t exist in the past and why these elements are missing. (In June of 2023 the Hanna Institute Summit will focus on children who are homeless, foster-involved, or undocumented.) Holidays can bring up feelings of loss, loneliness, fear, dread, and shame. In addition, the rituals and norms around the holidays can overwhelm one’s capacity to cope. These emotions can cause a trauma response.
These responses may confuse or upset the survivor and those around them, especially if the pain is unknown. Often trauma is an invisible injury as it is often unidentified or silenced. Recognizing signs and triggers can be helpful to a survivor and others. For a survivor, recognition helps you initiate coping skills that allow you to find emotional safety when your body and mind are hijacked by the response.
For a bystander, recognition helps keep the situation from getting worse, allows you to stay regulated when witnessing a trauma response, and sometimes, helps heal the hurt and damage. (The Community Mental Health Hub at Hanna Center will be offering a workshop on December 14, 5:30-7pm to help people identify signs of trauma in youth.)
Below are some coping suggestions for a survivor. It is helpful to pre-plan what you will do and when you might need to use these. If you are a friend or family member of a survivor, especially a young survivor, help co-create plans to use these suggestions and support their use of them.
Overall, this is a season of grace. So be open to mixed experiences and forgive ourselves and others for doing the best we can at the moment to manage intense emotions. As our Director of Residential Programs says, “every day a little better.” With that, we hope each holiday is better than the last.
Stefanie F. Smith is Vice President, Clinical and Trauma Responsive Programming, for Hanna Center.