How to cope at Christmas if you find going home triggering

For most, Christmas is all about spending time with family.

Adults who have left home make the journey back to spend a week or so sleeping in their childhood rooms, visiting distant relatives and catching up with old friends.

But not everybody feels comfortable going back to their childhood home due to past trauma that can trigger negative feelings.

‘We all experience trauma and adversity, some of us on a micro level, and some of us in a very complex way,’ says counsellor Ruth Micallef.

‘Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) are prolific in the UK, and include witnessing or experiencing a variety of abuse, neglect, domestic violence, divorce, mental health challenges, substance abuse or incarceration as a child.

‘But traumas can also be family breakdown, narcissism in the family unit, isolation or bullying in your home town – just to name a few.’

It can be easy to forget about past traumas when you’re far away from where they took place, but going back to the source can be harrowing.

‘We can all feel slightly different when triggered, as it depends on the ‘coping mode’ we may slip into,’ says Micallef.

‘Some coping modes feel detached, avoidant, or numb.

‘Others may feel the need to please the people around you, or appear ‘perfect’.

‘Coping modes can however include bullying or being ‘grandiose’ as a way to feel better.’

Being triggered can also lead to self-destructive tendencies, such as under or overeating, over exercising, doom scrolling, impulse buying, substance misuse or even working too much.

Especially now, there is an obligation to go home at Christmas, and to feel lucky you’re able to do that at all in the face of everything that’s been going on.

But it’s important not to feel guilty about the very valid feelings you experience when you head home for the holidays.

How to cope with feeling triggered this Christmas

If you’re planning to head home anyway, there are things you can do to make the task a little easier.

Ask for support

‘If you can, have support to hand,’ says Micallef.

‘That could be a close family member who understands, a close friend or a partner who you’ve told about your struggles.

‘Helplines are also an option; a sense of positive and nurturing community truly can uplift us in challenging times.’

Set boundaries

Micallef says: ‘Make sure to set healthy boundaries with toxic or difficult people and places in your life.

‘These can be set in small ways, by limiting the amount of time or conversation you have with someone, or bigger ways by completely avoiding unhelpful events.’

Say ‘no

‘It is absolutely okay to say “no” in a healthy way to something you do not want to do this season,’ says Micallef.

This ties in to setting boundaries, but will come in handy when you’re caught off guard.

Micallef adds: ‘The power of “no” may seem daunting at first, but it’s just like a muscle, the more you use it, the easier it becomes!’

Find healthy coping strategies

Having a mental list of different healthy coping strategies you can use when things get too much can prove invaluable.

‘It could be as simple as taking the dog for a long walk every day, making time for yourself, or taking an activity you love with you, like a book or cross-stitching,’ says Micallef.

‘Make sure to engage in activities that will uplift you in difficult times or situations, whatever they may be.’

Harm Reduction

On the other hand, you need to be ready to avoid negative coping strategies, like isolating yourself or reverting to old habits.

‘Feel worse when you drink, over eat, or spend too much time on screens?’ says Micallef.

‘It’s time to slowly reduce your harmful coping modes.

‘You deserve more than doom scrolling on your phone!’

Ruth Micallef is an MBACP Reg Specialised Eating Disorder Counsellor.

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