When Holidays Trigger Traumatic Memories From Childhood

The holiday season brings up memories from childhood in all of us.

Songs, smells of familiar food, and traditional holiday decorations everywhere activate the long term memories stored in our brains. And inextricably bound to those memories are emotions.

If those memories are pleasant, if they give us a sense of belonging and being rooted in a world that welcomes us, then the holiday season is a very enjoyable time.

But what if you are dealing with painful or even traumatic memories from your childhood, triggered by those same songs, smells and images?

What happens when traumatic memories are triggered in the brain?

Our brains are constant recording instruments. And there are at least two reasons why traumatic memories from childhood are so strong.

First, our earliest memories are actually the building blocks of the brain. They structure our later experiences and how we interpret them.

And second, memories with strong emotions, particularly of fear and pain, are a priority imprint on our brains. This is actually part of the learning function. Fearful situations are remembered so that we can survive similar ones in the future. Unfortunately, we can also get stuck inside those memories and the feelings they evoke.

If this happens to you a lot and if you experience other symptoms like panic attacks and prolonged periods of low mood, it would be a good idea to seek professional help. Some traumatic memories can lead to PTSD which can and needs to be treated.

Coping strategies for random holiday triggers

  • Acknowledge that you have been triggered. Note the trigger and try to understand what the connection is. The act of reflection will make you feel a little more ‘in charge.’
  • Practice your calming skills like deep breathing, sensory mindfulness, and living in the present moment.
  • Connect with non-toxic people in your life right now.
  • Remember that your emotional well-being is important. You deserve compassion and respect for your feelings, including from yourself!

Coping strategies for family holiday events (revisiting the traumatic environment)

  • Plan a time limit for the visit and create a safe exit strategy.
  • If you can, don’t stay overnight and don’t depend on transport from people who are likely to trigger your traumatic memories.
  • If you can, don’t go it alone. Ask someone to come with you who understands and can help protect you. If that is not possible, you could arrange to have a phone connection and agree on a kind of ‘personal emergency’ code.
  • Listen to your feelings and honor your experience.

What can make it worse?

Group pressure to ‘forget’ and pretend

Families (or other groups) can exert a strong pressure on someone who has been the target of traumatization from within their own ranks to ‘forget’ and ‘forgive’ what has been done to them. This is often presented as proof of ‘maturity’ – with the implied criticism that the person who has suffered trauma inflicted by members of this same group is at fault if they don’t comply. Again.

In reality, the pressure to pretend that all is okay is solely for the benefit of those who hurt you and those who didn’t do anything about it.

Alcohol and ‘unsafe’ surroundings

For many survivors, holiday festivities feel deeply unsafe, and efforts to ‘relax’ through alcohol actually make things worse. Try to stay sober so that you are in control.

Presence of someone connected with the original trauma

This is probably the worst case scenario and the one most feared by survivors of childhood trauma. If you know that someone like that will very likely be present, you might consider not attending.

Yes, that is considered an extreme measure and will probably increase the group pressure to disregard yourself. But it might be the best solution for everyone. You can always meet the ‘non-trigger’ members of your family at other times.

If you feel you can cope, try to put in place very strong boundaries. If you have any allies in the group, try to connect to them but don’t let yourself be drawn into any fights.

You have a right to protect yourself, even during the holidays – or perhaps even more so, since traumatic memories are more likely to be triggered.

One good idea is to write down your coping strategies so that you can look at them — why not store them on your phone so that you can have a quick reminder when you get stressed?

Talking through your fears and possible solutions with a good friend is also very helpful. Maybe you can make a mutual assistance plan.

And maybe now is also a good time to consider counseling or re-visit counseling for a few extra sessions.