How to lay the ghosts of traumas past to rest this festive season

Hannukah. Christmas. Kwanza. New Year. There’s plenty to celebrate in December. For many, it’s a chance to congregate and connect. But for others, this isn’t the season to be jolly. They have good reason to dread visiting relatives or returning to places they associate with traumatic experiences. Yet more face loneliness. No one to see, nowhere to go.

But for everyone who dreads December, there is hope. Luckily, in recent years, there has been a growing awareness and recognition of the lifelong impact trauma can have on anyone, and the many ways in which trauma can happen. Different approaches to overcoming the negative impact of traumas have and continue to be developed.

In this article, we present a way to mitigate the stresses of the season and find ways to begin transforming traumatic memories and reduce feelings of loneliness.

Most people feel a little pressure to enjoy themselves at this time of year, and for many, that’s exactly what they do. But, for others, the season brings trepidation, anxiety, even fear. During most of the year, we can avoid returning to scenes of traumatic experiences in our past. But the holiday season brings invites to visit people and places from our past that are harder to turn down.

Upon returning to a relative’s home for the first time in a long time, it’s easy for the sight of an old house, the smell of a room, the way relatives talk to us to instantly transport us back to days gone by. Great, if those old times were enjoyable and give us fond memories to recall. Not so, if those sensations trigger traumatic memories.

When we return to these places, we regress. Even the most highly successful individuals are susceptible. Take, for example, the CEO of a successful business who returns home. Maybe she is cajoled into wearing a festive sweater, gets treated like a child by well-meaning relatives, sleeps in her old bedroom with posters on the walls of pop stars she stopped listening to years ago. At the dinner table, she is reminded of the time she mistook parsnip for potato during a celebratory dinner. She hears aunts and uncles recollect days gone by when she was “knee-high to a grasshopper.” She has to sit there and grin and bear it as tales of her mishaps as a child are retold for the umpteenth time. All fine, if the tales bring back happy memories, but not so if these recollections are the cue for thinking back to more disturbing, sinister, and traumatic events from the past that she’d rather forget.

Anyone who has experienced trauma, whether it’s physical, sexual, emotional, or associated with neglect, perhaps the loss of a parent, sibling or another loved one, is not going to find returning to the scene of the traumatic experience easy any time of year. And during the holiday season when the pressure’s on to be happy? That’s even harder. So what to do to help manage the emotional and physical impact these traumatic memories have and to help ensure they don’t adversely affect the festive celebrations?

Aside from avoiding returning to the scene of trauma altogether (more about that later) the first thing to do is to acknowledge that the traumatic event occurred. That may sound a little crass. After all, who’s likely to forget a traumatic experience? Yet many people play down their past experiences, while others don’t even recognize that they’ve been traumatized by an event. As the American activist Tarana Burke asserts: “Violence is violence. Trauma is trauma. And we are taught to downplay it, even think about it as child’s play.”

Trauma definitely is not child’s play. It’s defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Something it’s perfectly natural to want to forget about. The brain pushes bad and unpleasant experiences like this into a corner, often because contemplating what happened is too much to handle. It’s another survival mechanism kicking in. But accepting that a traumatic event has occurred is vital to helping handle the sensations and emotions that are attached to it. Since returning to where the trauma occurred can reactivate disturbing feelings and experiences, one way to avoid these emotions resurfacing is to not go back, and this is completely legitimate and acceptable, no matter what other people’s opinion about it is. Refuse the invite to return for the holiday season celebrations even if that means being alone. We’ll discuss below what other options might be there for you, if that is your choice.

But what help can be given to those who don’t want to or can’t avoid going back? AnatBanielMethod® NeuroMovement® (ABMNM®) lessons can help. These safe and simple lessons involve gentle physical movements and heightened awareness which awaken a potent process in the brain to create new connections that build new neural patterns. The result is you acquire new ways of feeling, thinking, moving and acting that will stand you in good stead for the holiday season, provided you practice them regularly for a while. When faced with revisiting the scenes of traumatic experiences, these lessons can help create a whole new place of internal safety so you can be who you are now. And if you do regress, you are likely to be able to pop back into your inner space of safety more readily, and take the actions you need to take to maintain your well-being. So, regressing back to the feelings and experiences of childhood doesn’t happen quite so much, quite as fast, and is easier to recover from.

It’s also important to have support from positive and loving individuals. We all have people in our lives who don’t want us to change, who remember us being certain ways a long time ago and who want us to still be that person. They don’t want to or can’t recognize or appreciate that people change. Don’t look for or expect support from these people in your life. Instead, focus on spending time with those who support you for who you are now.

Now, what of those who’d rather spend the holiday season alone than return to a scene of a trauma? Or those who have no choice but to be alone, with no friends or relatives to call on, no social network to support them? Loneliness is exacerbated at this time of year. It’s easy to slip into emotional pain, thinking everyone else is out there having fun. To feel unwanted, unloved and not worthy. All are natural human feelings in these circumstances, but feelings that do not have to represent reality, or the truth about you and your life.

When in this position, however deep the painful feelings are, remember that there are many people who will be spending the holiday season alone, some by choice, some through necessity. Once you do the NeuroMovement® lesson, or a few of them, you most likely will feel better both in body and in spirit. When you do, you may discover that it is easier to reach out and look for a group you can join in celebrating the holidays – virtual, or in person. It might be easier to remember that there are people out there who would love for you to reach out to them. You may choose to engage with neighbors, call an old friend, connect with a place of worship, or search for local support groups online.

This holiday season, we hope that you can take some time to harness your ability to enhance your resilience, vitality, and well-being, and find more joy in the holiday celebrations.