Dealing with Emotional Triggers During the Holidays

A broken bulb under a Christmas tree

For many, the “most wonderful time of the year” is less than jolly. While the holidays are associated with food, family, and celebration, this festive atmosphere can hide difficult triggers for people affected by mental illness.

For people struggling with eating disorders or substance abuse, the focus on food and alcoholic drinks during all those holiday parties can be difficult — or even trigger a relapse. For people struggling with depression or who lack social support, the focus on family and community gatherings can reinforce feelings of loneliness. Finally, while family gatherings can provide comfort and joy for many, those dealing with family trauma and abuse histories, or currently living with domestic violence, may face increased risk.

How can you survive (and enjoy!) the holidays when the festive season feels less than merry?

The first thing to remember: While the season brings an emphasis on giving, remember that you deserve to give to yourself. This means being patient and generous with yourself, noticing your triggers, and setting the boundaries you need to stay healthy.

Here’s what experts have to say about how to deal with these common triggers — and enjoy the holidays.

Alcohol Abuse

The triggers

With all the emphasis on making merry, alcohol is everywhere during the holidays. While a glass of eggnog can be innocuous for many, the presence of alcohol can be a serious trigger for people struggling with alcohol addiction.

The plan

Successfully navigating the holidays without a relapse requires self-knowledge and community support. Experts recommend three broad steps to deal with triggers:

  • Be honest with yourself. While it may be tempting to pretend that you’re not at a risk of relapse, the truth is that recovery is a long-term process. Taking time before the holiday rush to check in with yourself, and being honest about what is likely to be a trigger, can prevent you from walking into that holiday party unprepared.
  • Plan ahead. Before going to an event or party, consider what is likely to be triggering for you and what you’ll do when you encounter these triggers. As Vanderbilt psychiatry and pharmacology professor Peter R. Martin, MD tells Everyday Health, “An alcoholic needs to wake up each morning thinking about how to stay sober that day.” Simple steps like eating before the party to avoid making impulsive decisions, and carrying your own nonalcoholic beverages can keep you thinking clearly in the moment.
  • Reach out. The holidays are about community, and that includes any community helping you stay sober. Reach out to trusted family members and friends and communicate your intention for staying sober this holiday season. While the season is chaotic and often involves travel, it’s important to stay involved with your support group or to continue regularly attending any treatment you might be receiving.

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Domestic Violence and Abuse

The triggers

Domestic violence incidents are thought by some experts to increase around the holidays. While it’s hard to find a precise measure of when incidents occur, it is true that increased time with abusive partners or family members at home, while traveling, and during other holiday events can create a risky situation for people experiencing domestic violence.

Survivors who have left abusive relationships may also experience painful reminders of past trauma during the holidays, and may even find themselves missing abusive partners due to holiday themes of nostalgia and family. Meanwhile, for survivors of childhood domestic violence or sexual abuse, the holidays can evoke painful memories, especially when survivors encounter abusive family members at family gatherings.

The plan

The right plan for staying healthy and safe during the holidays depends on your situation. If you’re currently in an abusive relationship, The National Domestic Violence Hotline suggests safety planning, including:

  • Make a plan to travel safely. The National Domestic Violence Hotline suggests sharing your itinerary with trusted family and friends, keeping a stash of money in case you need to get away from a situation, making a specific plan for your children, and familiarizing yourself with domestic violence resources in the area to which you’re traveling.
  • Communicate with trusted family and friends. Reaching out to supportive loved ones and asking them to check in with you can give you a support system in case your safety is threatened.

If you’re a survivor, you can stay healthy over the holidays by:

  • Practicing self-care. While it’s always important to prioritize your basic health and to do things that are healing and that give you joy, it can be particularly important over the holidays. Making sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating nourishing foods, and taking some time for yourself can make all the difference during this stressful time.
  • Set boundaries. Remember: You never have to interact with someone who has harmed you, or attend a gathering they’ll be at. You are entitled to set your own boundaries and decide your own limits. While you may face pressure from family members to attend gatherings, and it can be painful to say no to family or friends during the holidays, you have every right to prioritize your mental health.
  • Reach out for support. If you do choose to go to a gathering where you might encounter an abuser, or you don’t have that choice (for example, you’re materially dependent on the abuser), take time to reach out for support. Find allies within the family who you trust to be supportive, reach out to a therapist, or call the The National Domestic Violence hotline.

Depression

The triggers

Everything is supposed to merry and bright during the holidays — but you’re feeling down. If you have depression, you may find managing it even more challenging.

Even people without depression may find the holidays glum. The pressure to be around family and friends may be triggering to someone who is socially isolated or has recently suffered the loss of a loved one. The social and financial stress of party planning and present buying may have a negative effect on your mood.

The plan

If the pressures of party planning and present buying are stressing you out, flip the script by creating different expectations. Go out to a restaurant if cooking at home feels overwhelming. Set a gift-buying budget or donate to charity rather than buying elaborate holiday gifts. And don’t be afraid to set boundaries (if you feel tired at that holiday party, it’s okay to go home!).

Practicing good self-care can also make all the difference between a cheerful season and a holiday meltdown. Taking time to get enough sleep, finding time alone when you’d like it, and exercising are all good ways to manage holiday stress.

Eating Disorders

The triggers

Delicious family recipes, rich entrees, and sweet desserts are a major part of any holiday gathering. Sharing food can be a special way to bond with loved ones and keep traditions alive.

For people struggling with or recovering from eating disorders, however, these foods and the pressure to eat can trigger a relapse. If you find yourself preoccupied with diet and weight, find yourself attempting to skip meals or otherwise disregarding your recovery eating plan, or feel ashamed after eating, you may be at risk.

The plan

It’s a great idea to go into the holidays with a plan to keep yourself on the road to recovery. It’s also important to reach out for support. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) recommends:

  • Enlist support from trusted family and friends. Eating disorder justice advocate Kira Rakova, writing for NEDA, recommends making a list of people who you know to be supportive, including loved ones and mental health professionals. Reach out to them as you approach the holidays to let them know your intention for a healthy holiday season. It can be helpful to identify allies in your family or community, so you can have a safe, friendly face to turn to at gatherings if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
  • Eliminate triggers in a health way. Rakova recommends asking family members to remove materials from the house that may be triggering, like scales and fashion magazines. Have a plan in place in case someone begins talking about a triggering topic, like their dieting efforts: You can always change the subject or simply exit the conversation.

Merry, Healthy, and Bright

Sometimes, all the hype around the holidays can have the opposite of its intended effect. With so much pressure to make December the most wonderful time of the year, people who are hurting — whether that be from a mental illness, traumatic experience, or simply loneliness — may find themselves feeling even more isolated. It’s okay to find the holidays difficult. It’s okay to feel that you’re struggling. That doesn’t make you difficult, weird, or a “grinch.”

Remember: at the end of the day, the most important aspect of any holiday season is loving, healthy communities. By taking the steps you need to successfully navigate triggers during the holidays, you’re making that community stronger for yourself and everyone around you.

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