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Trauma and the Holidays

written by Tali Elitzur, LCPC
on Wednesday, 4th December ,2019

 

The holiday season can be a time for gratitude, peace, love, and joy. It can also be a time of stress, pressure, intense trigger responses, depression, and anxiety. For those who are going through or have experienced trauma, the latter is more likely. Survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence or harassment, incest, stalking, and bullying often dread the holiday season for reasons that I will illustrate below.

Surprisingly, there is very little if any research that backs an increase of interpersonal trauma during the holidays. Some cite the cyclical nature of abuse, a lack of increased call volume at hotlines, or stating that abuse and trauma happens year-round. Nonetheless, many mental health providers may agree that there are so many reasons that the risk is higher around this season. These reasons include, but are not limited to: 

  • Increased stress about money, more;

  • Increased consumption of mind-altering substances (family parties, office parties, etc.);

  • Increased conflicts and family pressure;

  • Guards are down because people are more at home and off work;

  • Painful memories from past traumatic holidays;

  • Large gatherings can create a source of stress and sense of lack of control; and

  • Traveling logistics can increase stress.

Even with an increased risk due to all of the above factors, there are many reasons that survivors do not want to report their experiences during the holidays because of:

  • Increased pressure to keep things happy and together;

  • Wanting to keep things as “normal” as possible;

  • Guilt about “ruining the holidays” for others, especially children;

  • Rationalizing that they will report it after the holidays; and

  • Triggering reminders of other traumatic past holiday seasons and wanting to avoid creating future traumatic memories.

Another important factor to consider is that survivors are often afraid that when confidants hear of their experiences they may respond with anger, anxiety or fear, confusion, disbelief, guilt, pity, or sadness. They are already feeling all of these feelings and more, and want to protect others from feeling like that during the holidays.

When you suspect someone may be feeling more than just the “Holiday Blues,” there are things that you can look for as telltales. Are they making normal eye contact? Do they avoid answering certain questions or topics by changing the subject? Do they appear extra sensitive or jumpy? Do they avoid contact like a handshake? Do they seem jumpy or watchful? Have they shared something vague with you but refuse to go into details or speak to a trauma specialist? Do they seem like they aren’t present? This may be a sign of dissociation, which is very common and can come across differently in different cases.

If you do suspect there may be something deeper going on, it is critical to honor another person’s boundaries and not press them to share something that they may not be ready to discuss. However, there are times where the safe space that you provided them with is just what they needed to break their sense of isolation. If someone trusted you enough to share their story, here are a few tips to help you support them appropriately:

  • Provide a safe space

  • Ask what would be most helpful from you;

  • Reassure them of their right to privacy;

  • Remind them that what happened to them is not their fault;

  • Even if a story seems unbelievable – believe them; 

  • Allow them to select the how far they are from you;

  • Don’t stand between them and the doorway;

  • Don’t express anger towards the person who hurt them. It may be a complex relationship;

  • Talk (and learn) about consent;

  • Provide validation and gentle encouragement;

  • It is not your job to fix or save them, but you can offer support and resources;

  • Do not force them to accept your help and support; and

  • Demystify the process of connecting them with resources.

As a supporter of survivors, there are some safety tips to keep in mind that you can share with them about staying safe during the holidays:

  • Trust your instincts;

  • If others are drinking, avoid drinking yourself;

  • Have cash on you in case of emergencies;

  • Have alternate ways of getting home;

  • Don’t leave your drinks or food unattended;

  • Check in with yourself about your boundaries;

  • Be aware of signs from your body that something may not be okay;

  • Share your travel plans with a safe person;

  • Keep a phone charger on you;

  • Create a “safe word” to signal to a safe person that something is not okay;

  • Do not isolate from your support system. Reach out to them;

  • Change your routine; and

  • If needed, make an escape bag.

The holidays are stressful enough without adding an extra layer of interpersonal trauma. Our systems are overactive and more reactive. Whether a person is a trauma survivor or not, self-care is an imperative part of calming down our systems and maintaining a sense of well-being. Here are some in the moment and take-home self-care tips that you can share with them. 

  • Take deep breaths to calm your system;

  • Lean into your 5 senses to prevent brain fog: 
    What do you see/smell/hear/taste/feel?

  • Find things that make you feel safe;

  • Avoid social media;

  • Monitor the type of energy you take in: avoid negative media, and take in things that help calm your system; and

  • Eat foods that make your body feel good and avoid overeating.

There is a very small window of opportunity when a survivor actually reaches out for help. If we are uncomfortable with the topic of trauma, then we may miss a valuable opportunity to help save someone else affected by it. You do not need to be an expert on the topic to know that something is not okay. If you are unsure of where to refer them, call your local community resources to see what they advise for the particular situation that you have witnessed.

Fortunately, we have many community organizations that provide services to survivors of abuse and violence, there are a number of wonderful national hotlines, and there are many mental health professionals in private practice all of whom are great sources of support. If the survivor that you have connected with is open to getting additional support, providing them with a warm transfer can be helpful. A warm transfer means actively helping them connect with these resources, and possibly even calling them for or with the survivor. Holding their hands through the process can increase the chances that they will make a connection with trained professionals. 

The more you know about the places you refer them to, the more likely you they are to get help. This may include: location, phone number, location if not undisclosed, contact person, parking, etc. It is very intimidating for them to call an unknown place, and the prospect of disclosing sensitive information is very scary. They need your encouragement and patience. 


NATIONAL RESOURCES

  • Domestic abuse: thehotline.org and 800-799-7233

  • Sexual assault: rainn.org and 800-656-HOPE

  • Stalking Resource Center: victimsofcrime.org and 855-484-2846

LOCAL RESOURCES

Montgomery County Crisis Center and Hotline: 

24/7 help for various types of crises.

240-777-4000

MidCounty DHHS Building: 1301 Piccard Drive, Rockville, MD 20850


Abused Person Program 

Therapy and advocacy with for domestic abuse survivors. Support groups for survivors and abusers, as well as for children exposed to abuse.

240-777-4210

MidCounty DHHS Building: 1301 Piccard Drive, Rockville, MD 20850

After hours they transfer their contact to the crisis center located in the same building.


Family Justice Center: 

Protective orders and guidance with getting to safety, immigration consultation, child advocacy center, and emergency shelter placement. They work closely with the Sheriff’s Office and the courts.

240-773-0444 

600 Jefferson Street Rockville, Maryland 20852 

www.montgomerycountymd.gov/FJC


Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse: 

Therapy (individual and groups) for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault, legal resources, financial advising, community outreach, and advocacy.

301-315-8040

Located in a secure and undisclosed location for privacy

JCADA.org


Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MCASA)

Advocacy, resources, and training.

MCASA.org


Victim Assistance and Sexual Assault Program: 

Therapy for survivors of sexual assault.

240-777-1355 weekdays, and 240-777-4357 24-hour crisis line

MidCounty DHHS Building: 1301 Piccard Drive, Rockville, MD 20850

After hours they transfer their contact to the crisis center located in the same building. 

vasap@montgomerycountymd.gov


Sexual Assault Forensic Exam (SAFE) Program

240-826-6000

Shady Grove Hospital

9901 Medical Center Drive, Rockville, MD 20850


Sexual Assault Legal Institute (SALI)

Protective and Peace Orders, financial compensation, housing issues, employment law, primary and secondary school issues, immigration, family law matters, referrals for tort cases, safety planning

301-565-2277 or 877-496-SALI

Tags: Interpersonal trauma, trauma and the holidays

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