Trauma-Informed Self-Care for Holiday Stress

The holiday season is upon us: at home, in the workplace, in our communities, classrooms, and far and wide in the media, online, and in neighborhood stores.

This time of year can inspire festive gatherings and activities of joy, togetherness, and heartfelt memories with family and friends. For some, though, the holidays can be a challenging time of stress, adversity, and a difficult trigger of strong emotions, pressures, or traumatic experiences.

As trauma practitioners, here are some self-care tips to be mindful of for managing the holiday season, for ourselves and those we work with as mental health professionals. With all the hustle and bustle of this time of year, remember to continue to use a trauma informed lens and approach in your work:

Holiday Triggers for Stress

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends that service providers assess their own holiday triggers and reflect on what may activate these. When we are aware of our own experiences and reactions to holiday stress, it offers an opportunity for us to regulate, be conscious of our emotions, body language, responses, and its impacts on others (i.e. clients, families, staff, coworkers, etc.) “When we are attuned to our own reactions, we are better able to provide, nurture, and balance” (Gill, 2014). To facilitate this awareness, try making a list or create a magazine photo collage of holiday triggers or expectations you experience and another list or collage that identifies approaches you can realistically employ to manage them in healthy and proactive ways. Identifying triggers and coping in these creative ways can also be empowering for our clients and help trauma practitioners adapt or change the delivery of activities during this time of year.

Avoid Holiday Activity Overload

Many organizations and programs I have worked for see an increase of requests and interest from volunteer groups with schools, colleges, places of worship, and community projects willing to help out and donate their time during the holidays and for clients in need. This generosity in the form of gifts, holiday parties, donated meals, special outings, and more are wonderful to see, but sometimes there can be a whirlwind of holiday activities and ongoing happenings that can become overwhelming and very deregulating for both staff and clients to handle effectively, which in the end can create more traumatic stress and the inability to cope with what is taking place. It is worth reconsidering and scaling back events and activities to include what is beneficial for the emotional safety and true needs of clients from a trauma focused perspective and inquiry (Volk, 2016).

Common Trauma Reactions and Holiday Impact

Be especially mindful of the impact the holidays can have on well-being and its influence on trauma reactions. The holidays can heighten emotions of loss, loneliness, anxiety, tension, sadness, and much more. Fatigue or poor eating and drinking habits influenced by holiday activities and pressures can take a physical toll. Sensory-based experiences with holiday-inspired music and smells can be painful for some survivors to navigate, as well as past memories, traditions, or loved ones. Trauma-informed care recognizes how these experiences can impact a survivor during this season. Create a holiday safety plan for yourself, your staff, and clients that supports well-being, recovery, and uses strength-based strategies and aspirational values to assist with coping.

If you are looking for more ideas or to meet the needs of specific populations or issues during the holidays (i.e. veterans, grief, divorce, homelessness, etc.), the resources below offer additional considerations to help manage the holidays with a proactive, practical, and encouraging approach in the spirit of trauma-informed care. Season’s greetings for a safe and healthy holiday!


SAMHSA Six Key Principles to Trauma Informed Approach

The Role of Right-Brain to Right-Brain Communication and Presence in Therapy- TLC, Lori Gill

Recognizing Holiday Triggers of Trauma- SAMHSA, Katie Volk

Getting through the Holidays Resource List

Holiday Stress- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Holiday Stress Resource Center- American Psychological Association

By Gretchen M. Miller

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