Christmas is a special time of year. Whatever your religious convictions may be, it’s a time filled with social activities, family gatherings, and expectations of all kinds. With the New Year just around the corner, it’s also a time to reflect, and wonder what next year may hold.
For people who have experienced trauma in their lives, Christmas can be a difficult time. If you have a friend or loved one who has recently, or not so recently, been affected by a traumatic event, it is helpful to understand what they may be going through, and to know how you can help them, and those around them, enjoy the ‘silly season’.
Trauma can lead to mental health problems, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or anxiety. Common experiences include:
- reliving the traumatic event
- feeling tense and wound up
- avoiding activities, places or people that bring back traumatic memories
- feeling sad, hopeless, empty, fearful, angry or guilty
- lacking energy
- relying on drugs or alcohol to cope
- feeling isolated from others.
The festivities and busyness of Christmas can be especially challenging, bringing feelings of isolation, stress and an inability to cope with the demands or expectations of the season. With the New Year looming, the person may also be reflecting on the past and the trauma they have experienced, and be finding it difficult to feel hopeful about the future.
How family members and friends can help make the festive season easier:
1. Reach out – Connecting with others is the single most important factor in recovering from trauma. Your friend or loved one may be feeling isolated or alone, so think about sending them a Christmas card, inviting them over, or asking how they’re going and what they’ll be doing for Christmas. Some people who have experienced trauma can also withdraw from family and friends and avoid festive activities. Encouraging them to join in without putting too much pressure on them can help them feel more connected.
2. Take the pressure off – Don’t place too many expectations on them, and help them to have reasonable expectations of themselves. For example, if they are the person who usually hosts Christmas, or does most of the preparation, or if they are responsible for bringing the family together, can you take on some of that responsibility instead? Can you help them to re-set their expectations of themselves and what Christmas should be like?
3. Reduce conflict – It’s unfortunate that the stress of Christmas can sometimes lead to conflict. Trauma symptoms can also make a person less able to cope with tension. Having realistic expectations is one way to reduce the likelihood of conflict, and if tensions rise, do your best to defuse them. Changing the topic of conversation, creating a distraction, or suggesting everyone take part in a game are options worth trying.
4. Support sensible alcohol consumption – Christmas celebrations in Australia usually involve alcohol. For people who have experienced trauma, alcohol can be used to cope with distressing thoughts and feelings. If your loved one is trying to moderate their alcohol intake, support them to do that. Reducing alcohol intake will also help to avoid conflict.
5. Look after yourself – Trauma can change a person’s feelings and behaviour, and that can have an impact on your relationship; it can be tough supporting them. It’s important to remember to look after yourself. See our tips below.
Self-care tips for you and your loved one.
Looking after yourself and your wellbeing can go a long way to ensuring that this time of year is enjoyable and not too stressful. Try these simple but effective ideas:
- Get plenty of rest (even if you can’t sleep) – Christmas can be an exhausting time of year!
- Get regular exercise – find the time despite all the end-of-year activities.
- Eat regular, well-balanced meals – moderation is key at Christmas.
- Celebrate good times and small achievements.
- Make time for yourself – listen to music, read a book, go for a walk, or do a yoga class.
- Learn a relaxation technique like progressive muscle relaxation, or breathing exercises to calm you when you feel stressed.
- Get help when you need it.
If you would like more information about the effects of trauma, and ideas for supporting your loved ones, and yourself, check out our Recovery web pages.
For immediate assistance call Lifeline on 13 11 14 for confidential 24-hour counselling and referrals.