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Recognizing Holiday Triggers of Trauma

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Year-round, we encourage providers to adopt a trauma-informed lens—to use knowledge of trauma and its impact to make decisions about all aspects of their relationships with clients and how they run their program.

During the holiday season, the need for a trauma-informed approach is critical. Everywhere we turn, we’re reminded that it is supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year.” While for some that may be true, yet for others the holiday season is wrought with triggers such as songs, scents, and rituals. Then there is pressure to conform to particular social and familial expectations, increased presence of alcohol, and more interactions with family and friends. For those experiencing homelessness, the holidays may also serve as a reminder of what does not exist—a home in which to celebrate, cook, decorate, and rejoice. Loss, loneliness, and shame are powerful triggers.

So what can we do?

  • Think about how the holiday season impacts you, the service provider. Are you in a frenzy, hopping from turkey donations to a sudden influx of volunteers to clients in crisis? What are your own holiday triggers? Take time to notice your own responses.
  • Ask yourself, “What helps and what hurts?” As you work with clients and your team, be aware in every instance, you have an opportunity to interact in a trauma-informed way. Asking “What helps and what hurts?” can be a good gut-check. Sure, local honor society students may want to sponsor a gift-giving drive for the kids in your program, but ask yourself: Is that what the kids (and their parents) need right now? How could we set it up so that it doesn’t feel shaming? What could we do instead?
  • Plan now. Talk with your team and clients now about what the holidays may bring up for them. By being proactive, you are being trauma-informed. Even if clients have nothing to say, you have opened the door for conversation. And by talking to your team, you can be prepared as a staff to support one another and those you serve.
  • Pay attention to nutrition and exercise. Cookies, pies, and cake—oh my! Taking care of one’s body is good self-care advice no matter the season, but with additional stress and temptation everywhere, be more mindful about eating and exercise habits. Be sure to drink plenty of water. Indulge in sweets, caffeine, and alcohol in moderation. Go for a walk. Talk with clients about these habits too, as part of routine conversations on good self-care.
  • Create meaningful rituals. This is a great opportunity to involve clients. Let them be your guide. Ask yourself how to celebrate, with your team and your program, in ways that relieve stress rather than add to it.
  • Remember the principles of trauma-informed care. Healing happens in relationships. Recovery is possible. Support client control, choice, and autonomy.

This article was originally published as a Voices from the Field Blog post. Find the latest SAMHSA Blog posts about behavioral health and homelessness.

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Last Updated

Last Updated: 04/06/2022