Coping with the Holidays When You Have C-PTSD: A Quick Guide for Female Survivors of Trauma

Complex-PTSD (C-PTSD) is caused by prolonged traumatic experiences. Women are particularly vulnerable to this serious mental health condition because of their risk for ongoing sexual or physical abuse and domestic violence. If you struggle with C-PTSD as the holidays approach, you may need extra support to cope. This can be a difficult time for mental health, with added stress, anxiety, and depression. With guidance from treatment experts, supportive loved ones, and healthy coping strategies, you’ll survive and even enjoy the season.

A traumatic experience can have a lasting and negative impact on an individual’s mental and physical health, but ongoing trauma can be even more damaging. One potential consequence is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

While men are more likely to experience trauma, women are at a greater risk of developing PTSD. If you are struggling with complex-PTSD from multiple past experiences, the holiday season can be particularly difficult. Professional treatment followed by healthy coping strategies can get you through this tough time.

What Is C-PTSD?

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or C-PTSD, is a term used to describe PTSD that results from ongoing, long-term trauma, as opposed to one traumatic event. Trauma can refer to any situation or experience that is frightening, violent, or life-threatening or dangerous. Examples include abuse, assault, witnessing violence, or going through natural disasters.

Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD, but those who do have symptoms such as intrusive memories, dreams, and flashbacks; avoidance of anything that reminds them of the trauma; negative and damaging thoughts and beliefs about themselves and the world around them; difficulty sleeping and concentrating; startling easily; angry outbursts; and detachment and isolation from others.

The experience of prolonged trauma can trigger C-PTSD. This is not an official diagnosis, but many experts are pushing for it to become one. There are significant differences between PTSD and C-PTSD. Additional symptoms include: poor impulse control, self-loathing, inability to control emotions, dissociation, changes in world view and a general feeling of hostility, and difficulty trusting others.

How the Holidays Act as a Trigger

Any number of things can trigger symptoms of C-PTSD, even if you have been through extensive and effective treatment. Your own triggers are personal, but they are likely to be heightened during the holiday season.

For instance, negative emotions often act as triggers. This time of year you are more likely to experience stress, anxiety, and potentially heightened expectations that can lead to disappointment and depression.

The season can also trigger memories of past trauma that occurred at the same time. Or, seeing certain family members only at this time of year may serve as a trigger. All the usual triggers are exaggerated during the holidays, and that makes regular coping even more challenging if you are living with C-PTSD and the repercussions of trauma.

Tips for Coping with and Enjoying the Holidays

For someone with C-PTSD, getting through the holidays may be more about survival than enjoyment, but if you can learn how to cope with stress and difficult situations, you may actually be able to enjoy the season.

1. Set Boundaries With People As Needed.

Family can be a major source of stress during the holidays. All kinds of emotions are heightened and this can lead to unusual behaviors, more fighting, and outbursts. This is also the time of year you may be around those family members you rarely ever see.

You are allowed to set boundaries with family without feeling guilty about it. For example, if your mother’s chaotic stress over perfecting the family Christmas table triggers you, tell her you won’t be around to help. Offer to arrive at dinner time with a dish you made at home.

If there is a specific person that reminds you of trauma, like a friend of your abusive former partner, you don’t have to be around them. Set your own boundaries to keep yourself safe, and be clear about them. You’ll find that those who love you and support your wellness will understand.

2. Rely on Supportive Family and Friends.

As this difficult time approaches, reach out to the people you know support you and understand your triggers. Even if you only have one or two people you trust, the social support they provide you during this time is invaluable. They can be there to listen, to go with you to difficult events, to help you manage your emotions and outbursts, to distract you from painful memories, and to advocate for you when you choose to distance yourself from certain people or places.

3. Plan Ahead for Difficult Situations.

Ultimately, it is healthy to get out of your comfort zone a little bit and to push yourself to face your fears. Rely on the treatment you have received for C-PTSD to manage these difficult situations. Face them with a plan in mind.

For example, if you are going to a family party that you think may involve triggers, have an exit strategy so you can get away with minimal fuss. Plan to have a trusted friend with you. Practice your coping strategies, such as quick breathing exercises, in advance. And have a plan in place for positive self-care ahead of the event to prepare and after it to decompress. A workout before a party, for instance, can help you relax.

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4. Engage in Activities That Make You Feel Good.

Now is a great time to focus on you. Do things you enjoy and avoid things you don’t. Because C-PTSD can cause low self-esteem and other destructive feelings, seek out activities that build your self-esteem. Spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself; take time to do hobbies you’re good at; do volunteer work that makes you feel useful and needed; and spend time with family members who appreciate you.

5. Avoid Drinking and Choose Healthy Habits Instead.

Alcohol consumption is a popular way to cope with the stress of the holidays, and while some people can handle it without too many negative consequences, it is a poor choice for anyone with C-PTSD. Drinking will not help you cope with triggers or negative emotions. In fact, it will likely make you feel worse, both physically and emotionally. Drinking may trigger negative self-thoughts, flashbacks, and of course the terrible feeling of a hangover.

What will actually help you cope, build your self-esteem, and make you feel better physically are healthy lifestyle habits. You’ll feel so much better in the morning if you take that evening walk with a friend instead of splitting a bottle of wine.

Healthy habits are good for you year-round, but right now, regular exercise, eating well, meditating, practicing yoga, and avoiding alcohol and drugs can make a real difference in how you feel about yourself and how you manage triggers.

6. Restart Treatment If Necessary.

C-PTSD is complicated, which is why one course of treatment in a residential facility may not be enough. If you feel as if the holidays are overwhelming you, and if your otherwise proven strategies for coping are inadequate, it may be time for a treatment refresh. There is no shame in getting more professional help. In fact, it takes courage and great self-awareness to realize you need it.

Living with C-PTSD and the repercussions of repeated trauma isn’t easy. The holidays may be the most difficult time of the year for you. It’s not unusual to find that your symptoms worsen or that your normal coping fails. Take time to evaluate your situation, get help from loved ones, set boundaries, make healthy choices, and if needed, get professional support.

Helix Treatment Center’s innovative gender-specific mental health treatment program is designed to help women gain the life skills and strength needed to manage their symptoms and learn to better cope with the lingering effects of c-PTSD and other mental health disorders in a supportive environment that caters to their psychological, physiological, and emotional needs so they can create a life worth living. We offer a tranquil space to restore emotional and behavioral health and stability in a safe, comfortable environment at our six-bed residence nestled in the beautiful Mt. Helix region of San Diego.

Contact us to learn more about our program and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.