Coping with Trauma & Holding Healthy Boundaries: Before, During & After the Holidays

By Kailani Akana Murphy, LSW

There’s no place like home for the holidays. Many people have loving memories from this time of year, but what if home doesn’t look like the Hallmark card your neighbor gave you or the latest Netflix movie that comes up trending on your recommended list? Though it can be a happy time, holidays are often heavily laden with expectations communicated not only by family but also through media, promotions, music and other seemingly innocuous – and pervasive – messaging in our everyday lives. What other time of year is so heavily marketed and saturated with expectations of our emotions and behaviors, even when we are alone? Be joyful, celebrate, be merry. For many of us this time of year also brings familial arguments, expectations and very few boundaries, all with the ability to trigger trauma we may or may not realize exists.

Trauma has no one definition and it comes in many different shapes and sizes; it can be in the guise of something physical, emotional, mental, sexual or spiritual, and also connected to natural disasters or neglect. Any time your sense of safety is threatened there is an opportunity for trauma to occur. The pressure to be merry and bright can make you feel like you are only allowed to experience and express a select corner of the emotional spectrum, and you’re ungrateful if you feel anything less. This isn’t to say you can’t wish someone warmth for their holiday season, but instead first recognize and implement what you need to be safe and comfortable so you can enjoy the holiday season too, however that may look.

Despite what many may think, healthy boundary setting is often not something that is practiced by most families or people with close relationships. Many might mistake closeness with health in any relationship, but healthy boundaries are important in order to make sure you’re taken care of and not at risk so that you are able to take care of someone else, if and when needed. To help keep yourself safe and stymie additional trauma as best you can, you can use different Coping Ahead tools that can allow you to find enjoyment in the season:

Plan how to spend your energy

Look at your schedule and identify what essentials need your energy – work, school, child care – and at how much energy is required, then compare the remaining balance of that energy to holiday plans. Set time limits for how long you are staying or visiting with someone, don’t overbook yourself, and allow yourself to say “no.”

Prepare for dysregulation in your sleep cycle

In general the majority of us function with some level of dysregulation in our sleep cycles, but with the greater disruption of our schedules taking up more energy, your sleep schedule is going to be disrupted too. Create a nighttime routine that is feasible for you so you can signal to your body that it’s time to wind down and your brain can be better prepared to rest. Try to keep a set time to wake up, and stick to it as best you can, so that your body’s natural circadian rhythm remains close to where you want it.

Be aware of cultural norms/expectations

Culture plays an important role in the holiday season and, depending on your own culture, that can mean an automatic expected level of deference to elders. Often there will be extended family at holiday events who you only see this time of year so it might feel like you have to humor their invasive questions. However, you can circumvent whichever comments are made by coming up with practice scripts and follow-up questions to ask them to redirect their attention. You won’t be able to predict exactly what is said or how, but make your best guess and then plan a few different responses that you can use.

Be aware of grief

The holidays carry many memories and can bring up feelings that are either fresh or have been carried over time. If you were to talk to yourself as if you were a child, how would you comfort/treat the child-you? Would you judge them for their feelings? How would you support them? Also recognize that grief isn’t solely for the death of a loved one – you can grieve the loss of a relationship, the loss of an ability (physical, mental, etc), toxic relatives, or people who have hurt you in any way. You can write letters to the people or things you are grieving and explain what is hurting you in order to both recognize and validate your feelings as well as to allow yourself to put them down and not carry them into everything you do.

Identify what you need to feel safe and comfortable

There is no playbook for what creates trauma or what to do to heal after experiencing something traumatic, nevertheless there are boundaries that you can identify in order to promote feelings of safety and healing. A physical boundary may be to greet someone with a handshake or a smile or identifying another person to stand with you to avoid a hug or a kiss that makes you uncomfortable. A mental boundary can be preparing a script for questions you don’t want to answer or be specific about, and ask open-ended questions about them. Emotional boundaries include planning breaks for yourself – you want to take a walk around the neighborhood or you have to feed the dog – and practicing a mindfulness tool to recenter and ground yourself. Identifying exits – whether it’s a physical way, a scripted phrase to extract yourself, or someone you can call for help – can be a powerful way to reframe your own sense of control in situations that may normally feel completely out of your control.

As there is no one definition of trauma, there is no one correct way to heal and cope, however there are ways to start. While you may see the holiday season as a time to give to others, remember to give yourself permission to set your own healthy expectations, tune in to what you need and reframe it to be a season of continued healing.