Family Dynamics and Triggers During the Holidays

man in gray suit jacket holding white ceramic mug during family dinner

Does the holiday season tend to bring you extra stress rather than joy? Do you fear emotional triggers during family reunions because of some strained relationships? Maybe you find this year’s holiday expectations particularly challenging if you have just entered early sobriety. The holidays might present many festive opportunities for drinking or peer pressures to use substances. Some people might associate family gatherings with unresolved trauma or painful memories. Holidays have the potential to be full of tension and triggers. These triggers may all lead to anxiety, depression, or a higher rate of relapse for recovering individuals.

Anxiety-triggering Family Dynamics

Some tensions at family events might be due to past wounds and ongoing dysfunctions. Common generational dysfunction may include domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse, parental neglect, or other acts of aggression, abuse, and violence. What most of these things have in common is the lack of clear and healthy boundaries. Parents take out their anger on children, siblings develop vicious competition, couples betray their marriage vows, cousins encourage each other to use drugs and alcohol, and the like. These individual actions shape the culture of a dysfunctional family, which makes similar behaviors tolerable and entrenched. 

Dysfunctional families often cannot heal without intervention, just like dysfunctional individuals often find it hard to recover through sheer willpower. Divisions, tensions, and aggression become the mainstream of a family culture. No wonder family gatherings can be stress-triggering when abuse is like an elephant in the room, and there is often denial surrounding it and its effects. The cost of growing up in dysfunctional families can be very high. Maintaining relationships with members of such a family can also be exhausting. Trauma becomes a cycle, and healing can feel like one step forward, two steps back. 

Trauma-informed Holiday Planning 

If you are aware of such dysfunctions, then the cycle of trauma can stop with you when you bring honesty, humility, and emotional maturity to a situation. The “most wonderful time of the year” for others might be a dark chapter for you or your loved ones. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends a “trauma-informed approach” to recognizing holiday triggers. If you work with mental health professionals who offer relationship skills training, then you have a better chance of recovering from family-related triggers. Revisit the lessons learned in therapy before the holiday season arrives, such as through cognitive behavioral therapyexperiential therapy, anti-depression medications, support groups (like a 12-step group), relaxation techniques, and coping skills development. 

Unrealistic expectations are another common cause of stress during family reunions in the holiday season. If you have achieved sobriety, you might want to be the agent of positive change in your familial relationships. While this mission is inviting and inspiring, be careful not to set yourself up for disappointment; you alone cannot turn a toxic family culture around. Chat with other family members about the kind of environment you want to create and work together to provide a trauma-informed, healthy holiday setting.

Strategies to Manage Holiday Stress

Those who sympathize with the difficulties of family reunions during the holiday season probably know the kinds of things that make family gatherings hard. People’s behaviors tend to be patterned, but you can adapt by changing your responses or coping strategies. Before meeting your family, ask yourself what tends to trigger intense emotional reactions. For your part, do your best to minimize triggering behaviors, but expect these patterns to re-emerge and permit yourself to leave the situation. Below are a few other strategies that may help you de-stress:

  • Make peace with the past and allow yourself to grow out of nursing grudges or holding onto hurt.
  • Avoid over-planning activities and keep things light to minimize stress.
  • Space family gatherings so that you have time to recuperate from one event before engaging with another.
  • Vocalize your decision of abstinence (e.g. a strictly no alcohol or drugs self-discipline) no matter what kind of response you get from family members.
  • Set healthy boundaries by choosing or avoiding certain conversation topics.
  • Avoid the urge to “save” relationships. Self-care is your primary concern right now.

You might also need to face occasions and family members that allow substance use or overdrinking. The presence of alcohol and drugs can be a serious trigger so it is wise to limit your exposure to situations that will be triggering to you. Develop a defense strategy against pressure to drink or use. Find a recovery-supportive family member to hold you accountable or communicate to trusted family members who are hosting the event to consider your sobriety needs.

Are you worried about triggers from family dynamics during this holiday season? Do you fear the repercussions of family dysfunctions in your recovery? Your concerns are legitimate and you should develop a trauma-informed approach to managing stress and triggers during holiday family reunions. Celebrate your hard work toward sobriety, but know that it does not shield you from challenges. You can always find professional help to prepare you to face these challenges. At Laguna Shores Recovery, our licensed mental healthcare professionals and therapists know how to help you navigate family relationships. As believers in holistic recovery, we are here to listen and walk alongside you through holiday stress. Our complete medical and residential facility offers a range of treatments, including diagnosis, behavioral therapies, 12-step programs, and treatment plans. Be proactive and prepare for holiday challenges now. Call us at (866) 906-3203. We are eager to help you plan your holiday de-stressing strategies.