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PTSD at Christmas: Hyperarousal

ptsd and Christmas

Christmas is the season of fun and good will, but having PTSD at Christmas means the reality is often very different. The Christmas countdown can be one of the worst times of the year. The reasons for this are many: an expectation of the perfect day, having to shop in packed malls, thoughts of entertaining… all these things can lead to feelings of being out of control. This is especially true when there is already constant overthinking going on in your brain. Christmas often feels too much. For those with hyperarousal, the run up to Christmas usually increases trauma triggers. A rise in triggers is associated with more frequent acts of self-harm and increased suicidal thoughts. This is very frightening.

For those with PTSD at Christmas, the season can and does ramp up perceptions of powerlessness. This may lead to increased numbing and depersonalisation. At worst, it can feel as if the Amygdala can’t and won’t take any more. In these moments, you may feel like fighting, running like hell or freezing. Sometimes, it’s all of these things together.

It’s also common for those with PTSD to increase their alcohol or substance use as triggers rise.  This not only hurts the person with PTSD, it causes unintentional pain to loved ones. It is crucial that you put some control into Christmas to prevent feelings of helplessness escalating.

Your Action Plan to Deal with PTSD at Christmas

  1. Limit engagements. Accept invites only to those events that you really want to attend. Make sure you know what the set up will be. If there is a strong feeling of not wanting to go, listen to yourself. If you want to stay at home, allow yourself to. Banish negative self-talk about being weak by not going.
    If you do attend and feel the need to leave early, do just that. The people that matter will understand. Disregard the views of others.
  2.  Structure plenty of downtime during the celebrations. Listening to music, walking or jogging are three undervalued and powerful tools.   Recent research findings are clear – activities that involve a strong rhythmic focus are proven to reduce hyperarousal in the Amygdala. These activities calm the hyperarousal element of PTSD much more effectively than the use of talking therapies which often do little to reduce core feelings of rage and distress. It is thought this maybe one reason why EMDR is so successful in treating PTSD.
  3. Maintain a routine of meditation, progressive relaxation, yoga and visualisation. These tools can be truly lifesaving in an emergency, which may happen if you’re dealing with PTSD at Christmas.
  4. Limit alcohol.  Alcohol is a depressant. It might feel as if it makes it easier to get out of the door. The reality is hyperarousal and depression are increased after the initial buzz goes. If you don’t want to go out, stay home and do something genuinely calming. Things will get better as hyperarousal reduce.
  5. Lower expectations.  Having PTSD is very hard. Most people haven’t a clue what you are living. You are a survivor and a warrior.  Allow yourself to be discriminate in your wishes.  You are your ultimate cure.  Respect that.

Written by Dr Chrissie Tizzard  PsychD, MSc, BSc Chartered Consultant Psychologist and Chartered Scientist. Dr Tizzard has over 20 years experience working with the emergency services, the military and civilians who have experienced PTSD in their lives. She has researched, lectured and developed training programmes pertaining to PTSD vicarious traumatisation and post traumatic growth.

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