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Loss and Holiday time.  Part 1

Family celebrating Holidays at dinner table

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Oh this was a really hard commercial to watch and it made me think about the feelings of loss that can be triggered for many people around the holiday season. I think I have been very aware of this because of the work I do but also because as an adoptive Mom and 20 years of fostering, holidays often were a source of a big bundle of emotions flying all over my home.

I had children triggered by memories that crept into their minds ,unwelcomingwhispers, trying to convince them that those old haunting voices could be right, that they didn’t matter, they didn’t deserve a gift and Santa had forgotten them.  Imagine the confusion for my kids, as they had those voices in their head, yet all around them were presents, a family, music, cooking, laughter and from my perspective healing  and safe experiences.

How does Trauma impact our Brain and body?

Unfortunately,  trauma and our brains operate on command.  We cannot will or chase early traumatic experiences away.  All those presents I put under that tree, trying to reset those memories just added to the confusion.  As a forever mom, I felt the weight of inadequacy, and my kids likely shared similar sentiments.Often holidays were full of expectations, unmet needs, disappointment and feelings of inadequacy.  Here’s the kicker,  everything that I did to make them feel loved, were foreign and unknown  to them.  Unfortunately our brains are wired to interpret new experiences as potential danger. Often we can move through that quickly and once again feel relaxed and enjoy the novelty.  However, childhood trauma wires our brains to interpret new experiences as threats, a primitive survival mechanism.  That is how our brain is wired, it wants to protect us and parts of our brain is still very primitive and can take over when it feels like it is needed.

Think about what to do, that part of your brain we just mentioned would take over. That is why it is there, for our survival.  The bad news part, sometimes our brain confuses past memories with current moment.  The way often into that part of our brain is through things we might not even be fully consciously aware of.  Many of our memories good or bad, scary or pleasant, indifferent or comforting are triggered by our senses. I knew that raising my kids because I had one world in the trauma and attachment therapist life and the other as a woman who just wanted to be a Mom.  That’s really a different blog yet we can never really take ourselves and our own experiences out of anything we talk about.  No matter how in control of something we think we are.

Trauma and Sensory

It is kind of strange that sensory experiences imprint so deeply into our brains. I’ll give you an example of a child I worked with as a young teenager. He told me that the first time he ever felt really safe in his life was when he was three years old and he went into foster care. All he could describe to me was a feeling of safety he had. He had been hungry and scared with his first family.  He told me that he remember that day so well a decade ago, the  foster Mom  had been baking cookies on the day he arrived. He didn’t have a lot of words to describe it but it was what he told me when I asked him when he last felt safe. At the time my centre was in a house which had a full kitchen. Before he arrived one day for a session I baked a roll of premade cookies so that the house smelled of fresh chocolate chip cookies.  The look on his face as he walked into the Centre to see me. His face light up and he said to me, the house smells so good. I knew it was his implicit memory at working, bringing him in my centre a sense of safety and those feelings he had that day many years ago. Understanding implicit and explicit memory can be very helpful in understanding trauma triggers. You can find some more information here about that. can you put this in as a link)

Smell is not the only thing that can trigger memories, but it is a very strong sensory trigger. We can also be triggered by something we see, hear, taste, or touch.  A Christmas carol we hear, the flash of Christmas lights, the lighting of candles at Hanukkah, seeing the snow falling, angry or loud voices, smell of alcohol or seeing the bottles…. There are so many triggers for children, youth and adults that have experiences childhood trauma. In my experience, most of the time people are not even aware of these triggers. They feel the same feelings, they have the same bodily reaction and might even have flashbacks but often do not know that a sensory memory triggered it.

Controlling Our Past Experiences and Emotions

While we may believe that we have control over our past experiences and emotions, a different narrative emerges when we consider the involvement of our sympathetic nervous system and limbic system. The silver lining is that these systems serve us effectively in responding to immediate threats, allowing our more primitive brain to take over and ensure our safety during times of serious danger.

The Challenge: Confusing Past Memories with the Present

However, the downside is that our brains occasionally blur the lines between past memories and the present moment. This confusion is often triggered by sensory stimuli operating beneath our conscious awareness. Imagine being in the midst of a joyous family celebration when suddenly, the sound of a song, the clinking of glass bottles, or a loud, harsh voice transports you back to a time in your life that was frightening or terrifying.

Unexpected Triggers and Bodily Reactions

In these moments, we not only relive the emotions associated with that distant memory but also experience bodily sensations that accompany it. These sensations can manifest as anxiety or panic, a quickened pulse, sweating, nausea, an urge to flee, and a flood of associated feelings. The confusion lies in the fact that these memories may resurface solely through emotions or bodily reactions, creating a challenging and disorienting experience.

Navigating Trauma Triggers: Strategies for Emotional Awareness and Coping

1. Recognize triggers and their impact

  • Acknowledge that past traumas can resurface during joyous occasions
  • Understand that sensory triggers, often operating out of our awareness, can evoke intense emotions and bodily reactions

2. Develop Emotional Awareness

  • Foster self-awareness to recognize emotional shifts during triggering emotions
  • Give yourself a break, do not judge the experience just notice it. Be curious about it and allow it to be your experience.
  • Use some mindfulness techniques to stay grounded and manage the emotional response that comes. Pick something that helps you. These are only examples.
    • Try 4 square breathing or just noticing the feeling of your breath coming in and out of your nose. Focus on that.
    • Try 5,4,3,2,1. Find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste

3. Create a Supportive Environment

  • Encourage open communication with trusted family or friends about potential triggers.
  • Foster an environment where individuals feel safe expressing their emotions without judgement and ensure that you create that for yourself

4. Implement Sensory Coping Strategies

  • Integrate sensory coping mechanisms, such as calming scents (lavender) or soothing visuals (a short 2minute nature video on your phone), or calming strips on your phone case to counter triggering stimuli
  • Use relaxation techniques to manage physical reactions to help promote a sense of safety and control. Your brain needs to be reminded it is safe.

5. Seek Professional Guidance

  • Consider trauma- informed therapy to help with past traumas, EMDR can be very helpful tool or other trauma based treatments
  • Explore therapeutic approaches that address both emotional and sensory aspects of trauma such as swimming, yoga, massage. Find what makes you feel grounded and better.

If you need some assistance  navigating the holiday season, we are always here to help at Mind 2 Heart Connections. Visit us here

Written by Laura Banks, RSW, MSW Owner of Mind 2 Heart Connections and fellow ADHDer

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