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Protecting Your Peace: Identifying and Responding to Holiday Triggers

Holidays are known to be a joyful time in which children are out of school, adults get a few extra days off of work, and families gather in large numbers to carry out decades-old traditions. Not only are holidays a time where we can gather with distant relatives and catch up with friends, they are also times in which we are more susceptible to being triggered by past trauma and old relationships. It is natural human behavior to fall back into scripts and old roles we may have fulfilled for our entire lives, and to even relapse into behaviors and thought patterns that we thought we had evolved past. 

To put it simply, the holidays [and your aunt’s red velvet cake, or that one cousin who always has a little too much to drink] can be triggering!

So, what about the holiday season causes at least 44% of people to experience heightened strain?

Financial Stress:

As a society, it has become very easy to feel as though the holiday season has become more about gifts and expensive electronics than family interactions and togetherness. The pressure to provide gifts for friends, family members, co-workers, and maybe even the less fortunate can make it feel nearly impossible to show your appreciation for everyone. Coupled with high inflation that is affecting the cost of living, it is not uncommon for people to feel an immense amount of sadness, irritation, and concern regarding family gatherings and being able to participate in a desired manner.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (S. A. D.):

Seasonal Affective Disorder is “a type of depression characterized by its recurrent seasonal pattern, with symptoms lasting about 4 to 5 months per year” (NIHM, 2022), typically in late fall and early winter where there is less exposure to sunlight and warm temperatures. Those who are experiencing S.A.D can present with feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, low energy, and even hypersomnia. 

Increased Access to Food and Alcohol:

According to ANAD approximately 9% of the U.S. population, over 28 million Americans, will experience an eating disorder in their lifetimes, while 6%, or 15 million Americans will experience an alcohol addiction. This makes the holidays an extremely tempting and overwhelming time, because most celebrations overflow with alcohol and unhealthy foods/desserts that can be utilized to combat the tension of familial interactions. 


The holiday season looks different for everyone. There are some families who revel in the opportunity to invest in traditions and quality time, while others present with more challenging interactions. Regardless of your family dynamic, the increased presence of loved ones can be stressful for respective reasons, including culinary expectations, traditional obligations, and more.

Helpful Tools for Responding to Holiday Triggers

Identify your Triggers:

It is imperative that you begin to develop some sense of understanding about what makes you feel upset, unsafe, unseen, unheard, or overlooked. Identifying specific triggers, albeit experiences, people, or environments, allows you to avoid these things or prepare for how to respond to them. This requires a great deal of honesty and vulnerability because they can often be things that have been present for so long that you do not know how to operate around them.

Listen to Your Body:

Being able to “notice and name” your feelings and emotions helps you to identify when you are feeling triggered and why. Ask yourself questions like “How am I feeling?”, “Why am I feeling this way?”, and “In what ways are these feelings showing up in my mind and my body?” You may note things like, when you think of shopping for gifts you are experiencing guilt for not being able to afford gifts for everyone. You could also notice physical responses like chest tightening or palm sweating when having intrusive thoughts about a particular family member. In these times, you should also consider, “What would make me feel better?” This could include things like being open and honest, attending therapy, or taking the time to meditate.

Be Open and Honest

When it comes to financial limitations or wanting to release expectations, it can be helpful to be honest and direct with family members and loved ones. This allows them to know that you care, and that you want them to know that they are important to you. In addition, this vulnerability can release you from feeling the need to hide behind a facade, and enables your family the opportunity to help you. Honesty and openness can also take shape in denying someone access to you, or being transparent about your current mental state.

Set Realistic Goals and Boundaries:

It is imperative that you are realistic about what you may experience this holiday season. Using your past experiences and the scripts you and your family have written can help you set realistic goals and boundaries for your interactions. For those who are recovering from addiction, this could look like giving yourself grace for any urges or intrusive thoughts you may experience. For family interactions, this could mean setting time limits for how long you stay in a particular environment, or strategically placing a visit before another so that you have an opportunity to leave. 

Attend Therapy:

Speaking to an outside party about all of the things the holidays and your family make you feel is a great way to process things you do not think you could share with your loved ones. A therapist can help you to manage stress, identify triggers, make realistic plans, and talk through what healthy boundaries look like to you. If you are seeking Black and/or therapists of color in the Atlanta area, please see below:

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Works Cited:

Addiction Center. 2022. Statistics On Addiction In America. Recovery Worldwide. Web accessed Nov. 6. 2022. 

Moss, Jennifer. 2018. Holidays Can Be Stressful. They Don’t Have to Stress Out Your Team. Harvard Business Review. Web accessed Nov. 6. 2022.,people%20say%20they%20feel%20happier.

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. 2022. Eating Disorder Statistics. Web accessed Nov. 6. 2022.,9%25%20of%20the%20population%20worldwide.&text=9%25%20of%20the%20U.S.%20population,eating%20disorder%20in%20their%20lifetime.&text=Less%20than%206%25%20of%20people,medically%20diagnosed%20as%20%E2%80%9Cunderweight.%E2%80%9D