The winter holiday season is regarded by many as a wonderful time of the year. However, the holidays can be a painful reminder of past times when life seemed better. Large groups of family and friends are often part of the holiday festivities, but this and other things may be stressful for someone with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Groups may tire a person out or make him or her feel overwhelmed. People may feel pressure to join family activities when they’re not up for it, or believe they must act happy when they’re not. People with PTSD may already find it difficult to get enough sleep or to relax and these added pressures can worsen those symptoms.
Someone with PTSD may be very sensitive to losses around the holiday. Veterans and military families, in particular, tend to remember at the holidays those who did not make it home from war. They may not know how to celebrate the holidays knowing those fallen heroes are no longer present. There may also be recent losses: the death of a loved one, an emotional divorce, or separation from one’s children. All of these circumstances may cause someone to feel melancholy about memories of holidays past.
Family and friends might ask the Veteran questions about his or her life or about PTSD. The person with PTSD may not feel comfortable answering these questions, but it is important that he or she keep in mind that their family may feel some of the same pressures, and may only be asking because they have a genuine concern for their wellbeing.
The holiday gathering may also be one of the few times family or friends are able to physically see the person with PTSD, and they may feel it is more appropriate they ask such questions in person rather than over the phone or online because they may think that is too impersonal. In either case, the person with PTSD has the power and right to not answer any questions.
Responding to sensitive questions
A polite way of handling these types of situations is by taking a few slow, deep breaths and calmly responding to someone, “I think it is nice of you to show you care by asking, but I’d rather not talk about that right now,” or “thanks for your concern, but I’m not comfortable answering questions about that.” Then take the opportunity to redirect the conversation. Ask that family member about work, their children, or their favorite sports team, and steer the conversation to safer ground.
Both people with and without PTSD can cope with holiday stress by following these tips:
- Talk with your family about how you feel. Your family can help you. This does not mean you have to tell them everything, but let them know you’re feeling stressed.
- Be honest about your stress level and let your friends and family know your plans ahead of time, especially if you are planning to take some time during the season to relax and de-stress by spending time away from home, work or people that bring stress into your life.
- Set limits. Don’t join activities for longer than you can handle. You can choose when you want to be a part of the group.
- Take breaks. Go for walks, or set aside a place where you can be alone for a while. This can keep you from feeling overwhelmed.
- Get plenty of rest. You may already have difficulty sleeping, but do your best to maintain your usual bedtime or wake-up. Naps should be taken sparingly, as they may further disrupt your nighttime sleeping patterns.
- Keep up with exercise routines. If you normally do yoga, go jogging, or lift weights, try to keep up those healthy routines. These activities are all healthy ways to relieve stress.
- Fake it ‘til you make it. Sometimes people who are feeling depressed find that if they go through the motions, they just might catch themselves having fun. While the pain from the past hasn’t gone away, this is a chance to begin making new positive memories one step at a time.
One of the best tips to remember when coping with holiday stress is not drinking too much alcohol. Many people have a few drinks, thinking it will relax them, but instead, alcohol causes many people to have less control over their emotions and behavior. As a result, your symptoms may be worse or you may end up having problems with your family. For those who are in recovery from alcohol, the suggestion from family or friends to “have just one” can be a big challenge. Carrying a glass of ginger ale or cola with you can help sidestep those offers without you having to share your personal matters with everyone.
As always, the Veterans Crisis Line will be available throughout the winter holiday season including Christmas and New Year’s. The Veterans Crisis Line connects Veterans in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring Department of Veterans Affairs responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text. Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Support for deaf and hard of hearing individuals is available.
Insert the number into your phone contacts because although you may not need to ever call them, you may find yourself in a case where you’re calling to help someone else.
Dr. Jessica Grogan is a PTSD psychologist at the VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System and VA photo illustration by Luis Loza Gutierrez.