I’m always excited as the Christmas season approaches. I think of decorating the tree, putting up decorations–particularly Nativities, and focusing on the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ. I have high hopes for the season to go a certain way, but…
…then, something inside me goes off like an annual alarm (right before Thanksgiving usually). I don’t feel good inside my head. Darkness closes in around me, and instead of enjoying the season, I find myself fighting to pull myself out of the depths of unresolved emotions.
It’s odd to be fine one day, and the next suddenly feel upset, hopeless, agitated, and overcome with sorrow and not have any idea why.
For survivors of sexual abuse, this may be the norm. With 90% of childhood sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator is a family member. Holidays often include family, which can cause anxiety in survivors because of the potential to have to see their abusers or be around those who did not protect them or help them when they could/should have. They may have to be in a place or around people that compromises their feeling of safety.
Another aspect that may cause is to struggle during the holidays is that our brain, mind, and body remember stuff that we may not consciously remember. Our body and mind can recall what happened during certain times of year, especially traumatic events like sexual abuse. (Side note, I read a brilliant book on how trauma affects the brain. It was both fascinating and horrible because of how much it explained the aftermath I–and too many others–have been experiencing. It’s called “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.) This subconscious remembering may trigger our fight, flight, or freeze response, or bring up emotions from the past, which can be really disconcerting when you’re not sure why you’re feeling or behaving a certain way.
So, what can you do to get through the holidays?
- Talk to someone close to you (or your therapist) and explain that you have a really hard time around holidays and/or family gatherings. Use this safe person to call or text when you need support, especially during the holidays.
- You’re the boss of yourself. You don’t have to put yourself in situations where it’s going to compromise your well-being. If you don’t want to go to a holiday event, don’t go. If you feel comfortable saying why you won’t attend, do. But you’re entitled to take care of yourself ahead of someone else’s feelings. (I’m not just saying this while not following my own advice. I didn’t go to my grandpa’s funeral for these reasons.)
- Make a plan. When triggers happen, you need a plan to keep yourself grounded in the present. Realize you’re in the here and now, not in the past when the abuse was happening (if you are still being sexually abused, please seek help to get out of that situation). Taking deep breaths, focusing on sights and smells around you, and noticing what you can feel with your feet and fingers can help.
- Take care of yourself. Do things that make you feel good. Exercise, going out with friends, or doing something creative like art or writing is good for your well-being. You may need to allow yourself some extra TLC during the holidays if you’re struggling.
- Be kind to yourself. Since the emotions stirred because of sexual abuse are not only powerful, but also very negative like feelings of worthlessness or self-hate. Combat these with positive affirmations. Focus on the good about yourself and have others help you see those things if you have a hard time doing it on your own. You are strong, worthy of love, and a resilient fighter.
Ultimately, you don’t have to do something you don’t feel comfortable doing just to appease someone else. You’re in charge of yourself. Don’t sacrifice your feelings for someone who hurts you physically and/or emotionally.
I hope that you might be able to focus on the important aspect of your holidays, rather than suffering alone and hurting because of people and events you have no control over. Take care of yourself and be kind to yourself this holiday season.