Why the holidays can be a trigger for painful emotions

Why the holidays can be a trigger for painful emotions - CALDA Clinic
Author: Claudia M. Elsig, MD

Christmas is supposed to be “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” So sang the late Andy Williams, and for many of us it is true. Christmas is generally perceived as being synonymous with joy, friends, family and happy times. But for anyone with mental health challenges or someone who has survived trauma, Christmas can be a difficult time and throw up painful reminders of the past.

There are numerous reasons why painful emotions can be stirred and trauma relived at Christmas. It is a time when people can turn to alcohol to resist and suppress the opening of old wounds. The festive season can be a difficult time for recovering addicts when the temptation to drink socially is extra high. And with a super abundance of food and socialising over lunches and dinners, coping with an eating disorder can be extra stressful during the Christmas holidays.

This blog explores some of the reasons why Christmas triggers painful emotions and outlines some coping strategies to get by.

Why Christmas can be the hardest time of year

If there’s one time of the year when there is pressure to be happy, sociable, and outgoing, it’s Christmas. How many times have you heard, “oh come on, it’s Christmas”. We are saturated with images on billboards, social media and TV of office parties and family get-togethers. The colorful, jolly images are mostly of happy people enjoying themselves.

But for some, Christmas is anything but jolly. In fact, it can be a time when many anxieties are heightened. Here are some of the reasons why Christmas can be an emotionally painful time.

Divorce, break-ups, and difficult family members

The coming together of families during the festive season can shine a spotlight on dysfunctional relationships that are kept at arm’s length throughout the year. There can be an expectation by some family members that at Christmas time you will put your differences aside.

This is especially so in the case of families that have separated. Parents may decide to tolerate each other for the sake of the children for a single day at Christmas. But this can be painful for children and adults alike. The atmosphere can be distressing and tense. Some abusive partners may use the children as an emotional pawn to try and get back together.

Christmas can also trigger painful memories of abuse and neglect experienced in childhood. Even as adults, we can hold onto parental conflict we experienced as a child.

Or for some parents, Christmas can be hard for those not living with their children, especially when everyone else is enjoying the perfect family festivities.

Coping with a narcissist

Christmas can be the worst time of year to deal with a narcissist in the family. With a narcissist around, family members often dread the festive season. During the Christmas period, narcissistic personalities can have difficulty in isolating, controlling and regulating people enough to get adequate attention. They will often devalue and destroy Christmas and focus on abusing their targets. One of the greatest joys of Christmas is giving and seeing others happy – for narcissists this is impossible, since they have no empathy and need to be center of attention.

For a partner of a narcissist, there can be anxiety around present giving (Will their gift be rejected? Will it cause a scene?) and for the whole Christmas it can feel like treading on egg shells. Or if you are separated from a narcissist, they may use the Christmas period to say they still love you and want to get back together. Don’t be fooled; this is a psychological tactic to draw you back in to feed their narcissistic supply.

Mental health conditions

The yuletide season can be an especially difficult time for a person struggling with their mental health. Whether it is from social pressures, a strained relationship, the dark and cold winter nights, the reality of spending time with a dysfunctional family, or of spending Christmas alone – all can act as triggers for social anxieties.

It can be a particularly difficult time for someone suffering from depression when there is a constant reminder from the festivities to ‘feel happy’. This can make someone feel even worse, with feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness exacerbated and coming to the fore. The Christmas atmosphere can make a person with depression withdraw even further.

A specific type of depression, known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is also prevalent during this time of year. Shorter daylight hours and a lack of sunshine can impact negatively on vitamin D status and mood.

For people with social anxieties, Christmas can feel overwhelming, and the frequency of panic attacks can increase. The pressure to socialize and the extra social buzz can trigger hypomania or mania.

Isolation and painful emotions

There is an expectation in society that Christmas is a happy occasion. But many people can feel a heightened sense of loneliness and despair at Christmas. This can be for a variety of reasons – trauma from difficult Christmas times in childhood, the loss of a loved one and grief resurfacing, missing family members due to the pandemic, difficult family situations, or finding the social aspects of Christmas overwhelming. A deliberate lack of contact with family members throughout the year can bring feelings of isolation at Christmas.

Abuse survivors

Many abuses that happen within families are kept under wraps or hushed up. Most of the year, abuse survivors may be able to avoid estranged families, but there is often an expectation that they will put the past aside at Christmas. In some families, the fact that an abuse even took place is never acknowledged.

An abuse survivor can feel guilt. They may ‘not be believed’ and be expected by family to put on a smile and behave normally, when inside they are suffering from the most painful feelings. Abuse memories don’t fade easily, and some survivors suffer with symptoms of PTSD. Christmas can induce feelings of great anxiety.

Some people are trapped in an abusive relationship, which can worsen during the Christmas period due to excessive drinking by the abuse perpetrator.

For domestic abuse survivors, it can be a time when they are tempted to return to an abusive relationship, perhaps from a fear of being alone during the holiday season. This is especially so for individuals who have removed themselves from a toxic family. At Christmas there may be a strong pull to go back. The pressure at this time of year can be immense.

Tips for looking after your mental health at Christmas

Deep trauma isn’t just going to go away. It is important to seek appropriate support and treatment to help you. Perhaps do some research over the Christmas holidays so you feel you are making a positive step. Take a look at the treatment options at CALDA to get a sense of what a healing journey looks like.

To get through the holidays try to balance social obligations with self-care. Try not to suppress how you are feeling and try to be kind to yourself. Listen to your needs and dial down your internal critic. Set clear boundaries with people and give yourself permission to say no. Prioritise your own wellbeing for a change and let friends and family know you may need time out from the usual social activities.

Small activities to keep up are things like taking a shower or bath, going for a walk. Meditation and mindfulness can really help to bring a sense of calm.

Treatment programs at CALDA

Treatment at the CALDA Clinic works to uncover and correct the causes of depression, anxiety and childhood trauma. All programs involve highly effective precision therapy to treat every level of the organism. We listen, address imbalances, and treat the causes. Coping strategies are taught to prevent relapse and to manage symptoms.

Our clients are self-payers, which is the basis to enabling absolute discretion and privacy. If you would like to know more, please get in touch.