Holidays and family get-togethers can often be PTSD triggers. We notice two broad categories of triggers. On the one hand, PTSD Triggers can be uniquely individual, based on the trauma that caused the PTSD to begin with. On the other hand, there is the PTSD danger zone that occupies 18% of each year. This zone seems to apply to most people with PTSD, regardless of how they were actually afflicted with PTSD. That danger zone extends from November 11th to the second week of the following January.
The 18% Danger Zone for PTSD Triggers
This year the span from the weekend before Veterans Day (November 11th) to January 10th is 66 days, give or take. That time span is about 18% of a calendar year (People Years, not Dog Years…woof!).
In general, a person with PTSD is at a heightened vulnerability for 18% of their time even before we factor in individual, person-specific triggers.
This does not include individual-specific PTSD trigger risks associated with particular days, events, and so forth. We may have specific vulnerabilities to other items/events that heighten our sensitivity to PTSD triggers. Thus, we may still be triggered by something which has nothing to do with the 18% Danger Zone.
Triggers Outside the 18% Danger Zone
An example of the non-18% risk happened to me the other day. I was walking to my car and a large semi-truck had just pulled up nearby. I had to walk by the truck to get to my car. The truck’s engine was running and generating heat, noise, and smells. Feeling the heat from the engine, the sound vibrating through the air, and smelling the fumes, reminded me of a time when I was on active duty. It was a trigger for memories of times I choose to not purposely remember. The heat, the sound, the vibration, and the smells, were all PTSD triggers for me. They remain triggers regardless of whatever day of the year I experience them.
Once I got over the initial reaction I told myself and then my wife what had just happened. Understanding it and naming it out loud to someone I can trust, enabled me to not be overwhelmed. The point of this story is that for me, those are specific triggers which have nothing to do with the calendar.
We all have individual triggers which are tied to stimuli that affect us but not necessarily others.
They can happen anytime.
Knowing our vulnerabilities and naming them to someone we trust and/or God enables us to better survive.
What Makes the 18% Danger Zone so Risky?
Why is the period from roughly November 11th to January 10th so fraught with PTSD vulnerabilities? It is because there are multiple risk factors at play during this time period. And, the corruption of a sacred day can cause greater devastation than the corruption of a mundane day.
Multiple Holidays (Holidaze?)
During the time period in question we have quite a few special days. Whether we celebrate, endure, deny, or merely survive, these particular days varies with the individual who experiences them. These days are as follows:
a. 11 November: Veterans Day, formerly Armistice Day. (Known as Remembrance Day in Canada)
b. 3rd Thursday in November: Thanksgiving Day
c. Daylight Savings Time ends.
d. Pearl Harbor Day, 7 December
e. First Day of Winter/Hanukkah Begins, 21 December
f. Christmas Day, 25 December
g. New Year’s Day, 1 January
(These holiday dates are focused on North America, especially the United States and its influence by European/Judeo-Christian traditions. This is because it is the milieu I operate in and from which most of the people who seek me out come from. If I left out one of your special days, it was not intended to offend.)
Time Hacks and Hours of Darkness
As you can see, items “c” and “e’ are two events which are not specifically holidays, but are events which cause us to focus on time and lengths of day.
Some people I talk with find that winter and the onset of the early darkness that arrives in mid-afternoon exacerbates their mental and spiritual health. Whether or not this is a facet of PTSD or Seasonal Affectedness Disorder (SAD) depends on the person. But, for the person with PTSD the changing of clocks and fewer hours of daylight can feel oppressive (Your mileage may vary).
Forced Reunions and Required Gatherings
Most of the other items listed are periods of time where our cultural conventions require us to be with family, friends, and associates – whether we want to or not.
For some people with PTSD, the thought of going “Home” for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Celebrations, is horrid and frightening.
PTSD often damages our ability to feel that we have a “Home” anymore.
Hearing an insistence we must come “Home” for the holidays can make us feel we are under intense pressure to fake happiness and satisfaction with life. When in reality we are barely holding together due to our PTSD.
At this time of year we are drummed with incantations about “how thankful we should be” when our lives may actually have been dismembered by PTSD. At this time of year, our culture tends to refuse to allow us to mourn, grieve, or seek solitude.
If we really need to mourn or be away from the crowds, then we may be further damaged if forced into unwanted attendance at gatherings.
Sometimes we may need some space to mourn our lost abilities, limbs, virginity, innocence, and even sense of self.
If those times fall in the 18% Danger Zone we may confuse some people who want us to be happy and jolly when we simply cannot be “happy on demand.”
Note, this is not saying we should completely isolate ourselves.
We Should Not Totally Isolate Ourselves!!
But not talking part in large groups that generate noise and demand saccharine happiness is not always a good situation to be in – even if you don’t have PTSD.
Toxic People will Disease our Meals
Who we choose to share food with and who we choose to eat with is very important in our social and spiritual lives. We don’t voluntarily choose to eat a large, lengthy, meal with people who hate us or who cause us to have bad feelings.
We don’t usually choose to eat symbolically important meals like Thanksgiving Dinner, or Christmas Dinner, or the Easter meal, with toxic people.
At this time of year we are often culturally required to be around people we don’t want to be around. We are required to share food with them and pretend we are grateful for their company. If some of the people at the gathering are contributors to one’s PTSD, or they exacerbate one’s PTSD by their own selfishness and thoughtlessness, then the person with PTSD may want to scream, drink themselves to oblivion, or take their own life.
The thought of having to go “Home” and spend time with, and even worse, share an important meal, with a toxic person causes a lot of stress. These toxic people may even be close relatives or merely in-laws. In some cases of PTSD, the stress over just thinking about having to be present at such a function can cause one to be physically ill. Additionally, it can trigger negative coping behaviors that lead to physical and/or spiritual self-harm.
The expectation of having to eat a special, important meal with a toxic person will pollute the event and dis-ease the meal itself. The meal that is, from a religious-anthropological view, meant to reaffirm social bonds and keep communication open, does just the opposite. The meal that is supposed to be a communal celebration becomes a dreaded event that causes dis-ease (yes, disease is a dis-ease) among some of the participants.
When I was in the Army I knew some people who would volunteer for extra duty on holidays. They did not always know how to put words to it, but they knew if they attended the usual holiday functions they would become angry. They knew they would be dis-eased and took steps to avoid the dinners, certain people, and the celebrations. They would act as if they did not want the extra duty, but they had in fact volunteered for it to stay away from the events and some of the people.
Avoidance So As Not to Disappoint or be Interrogated
Some people will avoid the seasonal dinners and celebrations because they don’t want to be seen as failures or disappointments by their relatives.
After being ravaged by a PTSD-producing event, we know we are changed. We may not understand the mechanics of how PTSD works and how it has affected us, but we know we have been changed and we react differently when compared to how we did before the trauma.
People who knew us well before the trauma will notice the difference. Out of caring and affection, they may even ask us about it. If they are gossips, they will mention it to others who have no need to know. They won’t think of it as gossip, but it is. Gossip is evil and harms the soul.
Whether the concern is from true caring or the interest is from selfish gossip, being pressed about our trauma and what it has done to us is the wrong thing to do in the context of an important dinner or celebration. It will often feel like an interrogation. The thought of having to endure those questions can be daunting.
Avoiding Toxic Gossips and Voyeurism
Often, the wrong people are demanding responses to questions to which:
– there are no answers, or
– they are not entitled to know, or
– they could never understand even if told.
The people who want to ask, or worse, feel they have a “right to know” and who demand answers, would not understand us even if we told them the truth as best we can. Most folks are not equipped to do triage on a wounded soul. Making demands in the holiday periods will only make the symptoms worse.
Having people at a party or dinner ask us:
– “did you kill someone?” or
– “tell me your best three kills” or
– “what was it like to be raped” or
– “did you secretly enjoy it” or
– “that happened to my cousin and they are fine” or
– “do you have PTSD? Do Ya? Huh, Do Ya?”
is offensive, demeaning, and voyeuristic.
People who push these sorts of questions are like someone peeping through a window while someone is dressing. It is voyeurism. It is a form of gossip and it causes harm.
Self-Isolating to Protect Others
This one is especially painful. We know our PTSD has made us feral if not all the time, then some of the times. We are afraid of what we might do. We take precautions to minimize the harm we may do to others.
If you are at this stage, then seek medical help.
In these scenarios we isolate and avoid relationships to keep our symptoms from physically harming others. Sometimes we avoid things or commitments because we are afraid of what we might do. I know some PTSD survivors who walked out on their families for fear they would harm their children due to PTSD nightmares. They pay the child support, try to stay alive to the kids during daylight hours, and our relieved they did not unintentionally harm their kids when their PTSD is at its worst.
Again, if you are at this stage, seek medical help.
Damnation Times Two
Sometimes the pressures to come to family events and important celebrations can feel like too much to bear. If the friends, family, etc., do not understand, they will pressure the person to show up and then criticize him or her for not being like they used to be before the trauma – for not meeting expectations.
The PTSD survivor is damned if they don’t come and then they get damned for not being “normal” if they do show up: They can’t win. The PTSD wins because it caused alienation, anger, frustration, and further isolation. The human beings have all lost.
Turning a Holy Day into an Alienation Day
The etymology of the word “holiday” means a “holy day.” Even a dedicated non-believer finds they celebrate many secular holidays each year. One could debate if participating in another group’s holy day constituted worship or not, but alas, that is beyond the scope of this essay.
If a holiday is ruined by gossips or people asking us questions they should not, then the day is turned into a day of alienation. Alienation leads to seclusion, shunning, and if bad enough, to self-harm.
The PTSD-Identity is delighted when people become alienated on holidays. We feel the pain, the dis-ease, even more than on non-holy days.
Perverting Something Sacred into Something Profane
The PTSD-Identity seeks to decay the sacred into the profane. It can use holidays, holy days, as weapons to destroy, instead of as special observances to strengthen and nourish us.
If the holy day can be associated with something destructive it can wreak more damage. This is because we have associated the day with something positive and then it has been flipped around and turned into a major negative.
While it is true that a crime is a crime no matter who does it, we also feel that somehow a crime is worse if done by someone we trust, someone who should help or nourish us, like a priest, a spouse, a teacher, or a dear friend. The same applies to holy days, our holidays. A day that is supposed to be special, nourishing in a good way, can be perverted into magnifying something negative.
If we had a negative experience on some “normal” day that is not special or holy, we usually notice less than if the same toxic event occurred on a special, holy day. To be wounded on a holiday may strike more deeply at the soul than on some other days.
What Can We Do if We Care (and We are Not Gossips)?
Feel free to make the invitation and let someone know they are welcome to the dinner or event. Some PTSD survivors have low estimations of their self-worth. If they are invited, they discover that others value them and want them to be with them; this can be a healthy experience. That said, don’t be insistent and use words like, “You MUST come…”
If a trauma survivor comes to the dinner, then:
– Welcome them normally, no fuss over their recent stay in the hospital or being overseas or being raped.
– Don’t demand answers or descriptions of the trauma.
– Protect them from the Toxic People. Nearly every family or organization has a toxic person. Be ready to peel the Toxic Person away from your new guest.
– Don’t press them with questions. Welcome them and say you are glad to see them.
– Don’t force us to re-live the trauma again by asking about it. We re-live it enough already.
– Just let them be a “normal” guest.
What About Talking About “IT”?
If they want to talk about “IT,” the trauma or the subsequent PTSD, they will.
Pressing for information, especially at an important and symbolic event like Thanksgiving, will magnify the toxicity and dis-ease the trauma survivor already feels.
Sometimes we are just glad to be in the presence of others without being asked about our traumatic experiences.
Pressing us about our trauma or PTSD means we are only valued as victims.
But What If I REALLY Do Care?!
If you already have a pre-established relationship with a trauma survivor, then it is fair to say something like, “It’s up to you, of course, but if you ever want to talk, I’ll listen.”
– If they do talk, don’t gasp or be judgmental.
– If they do talk, know that you have been shown a privileged gift; the story of someone’s suffering.
– If they do talk, don’t gossip about it to others.
PTSD seeks to get us alienated from our relationships, to get us isolated, and then to kill us. If we tell someone about our trauma and our PTSD and they then tell others, we will feel betrayed. That portrayal will make the PTSD worse.
The PTSD seduction to alienate, self-isolate, and self-harm is higher during the 18% Danger Zone.
Last But Not least: Alcohol Abuse
The 18% Danger Zone is a time when American culture imbibes even more alcohol than usual, especially for New Year’s Eve celebration.
There are office parties, family gatherings, series of parties with friends and acquaintances, and each is an invitation to cope by drinking too much alcohol. For the record, I am not sternly anti-alcohol, but I am realistic about the chances someone has if they drink and they have PTSD. Those chances are very poor.
If the only way you can stand to be around people is if you are drinking a lot, then those people are probably not worth being around.
People who have survived trauma may be on medications that don’t mix well with alcohol.
Allow alcohol to be a choice by the guest, don’t compel people to drink or tease them if they don’t.
Sometimes someone who ought not to drink will do so because of the peer pressure. If they do, our peer pressure, the friendly teasing, may kill them when the booze mixes with their meds.
If you are hosting a party or just simply care about someone who you know has been through some hard times and may have PTSD then consider shielding them from being compelled to drink. Just as a PTSD survivor benefits when someone can peel a toxic person away from them, the same applies to someone who can quietly support their not drinking.
Don’t offer or force alcohol.
Sometimes a PTSD survivor may want to go to a gathering but won’t because choosing to be alcohol-free will be commented on and clucked over.
If they want an alcoholic drink, then let them ask for it. Just don’t make the boozing an expectation or social pressure.
Discretion is the Better Part of Valor
We are now entering the holiday period when suicides go up, abuse cases go up, depression goes up, and life can just really suck from mid-November to mid-January.
People with PTSD are at an enhanced level of vulnerability during this period: the 18% Danger Zone.
We can heal during this period. This zone does not have to be destructive to us. We need to be realistic and not engage in risks that will only make us worse.
If we care about someone who has PTSD, then we should overtly or covertly make the holidays a time frame when they do not feel greater pressures, higher expectations, causes to isolate, pressures to self-harm, or to drink too much.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z
[This has been a difficult essay to write. It is lengthy, over 3200 words in the final draft. It chewed up two days and caused not just physical pain. In the writing I have had cause to re-think and re-live some of my own past. Additionally, the “genericized” stories that have been shared with me by those trying to heal from the PTSD soul wound have also come to mind. Dealing with suicide survivors and the families of those left behind has been both a blessing and a further wound, perhaps it is a form of redemptive suffering. I remember certain toxic people, the willful misunderstandings, and the people who chose self-harm over having to spend a holiday with a toxic in-law. It does not have to be this way. We can make this the “18% Healing Zone” if we put the well-being of others over our own social needs to be in charge or pry into the private affairs of others. The choice if we are increasing the danger or healing lies within each of us.
My own ability to get through my own – and others’ PTSD – has a lot to do with cultivating positive, healthy relationships. No matter how bleak things may seem for us, we do not have to give up. We always have value. God created us to live, not to whither….that includes me, and it certainly includes you.]