Top Tips for Handling Combat PTSD at the Holidays
Thursday, December 18 2014 Harry Croft, M.D.
There is no shortage of triggers for veterans with combat posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during the holidays. Loud noises, parties with crowds of people, the expectations of positive emotions and so many more things can make combat PTSD harder to live with during the holidays; and when everyone around you is having a great time, it can feel very lonely being the one who feels worse during the holiday celebrations. But there is hope. Use these tips to handle your PTSD during the holidays and maybe even have some fun.
Top Tips for Handling the Holidays with Combat PTSD
- Create the holiday that you want. Sometimes during the holidays a sense of control is forfeited as the holiday plans suddenly spring up around you. This lack of control can actually make PTSD symptoms (like anxiety) worse. To get back some of this control, plan the holiday that you want instead of something that Martha Stewart insists you should want. Go to the events that really appeal to you and plan experiences that don’t trigger you such as putting decorations on a tree at home with family rather than going to huge party. Set up new traditions that don’t trigger PTSD symptoms.
- Try to eliminate holiday stress. Holidays can create stress and one such stress is financial stress if you tend to overspend. Create a holiday budget and stick to it so you will have one less thing to worry about. Identify other stresses and put plans into place to address them.
- Tackle the reality of your PTSD head-on. So many families avoid talking about a veteran’s PTSD but I would recommend just the opposite. Sit down with your loved ones and talk about what might be triggering during the holidays and what could happen, and what is okay for you and what isn’t. Then everyone is on the same page and understands that you’re not being antisocial or rude by excusing yourself but, rather, you’re taking care of yourself.
- Create escape routes. During events that you choose to go to that may be triggering, make sure to plan an “out” ahead of time. For example, arrange to have someone call you after an hour, giving you an excuse to go. Or work out a code phrase with your spouse so that he or she knows when you need to leave.
- Do not drink or use drugs. Alcohol tends to be everywhere during the holidays and you may be tempted to drink – even if you don’t normally do so. But remember, drinking can cause a lack of judgement and a loss of control that may result in actions (such acting out in a rage) that you would not normally do. It’s best to keep control and stick to the virgin eggnog.
- Make sure the needs of others are also met. Or course, the needs of the veteran during the holidays aren’t the only needs – family, friends, and especially children of the veteran, must be taken into account too. When creating a safe, holiday plan for the person with PTSD, also make sure that others are not overlooked. For example, a spouse could stay at a Christmas party he or she is enjoying while the person with combat PTSD leaves for his or her own welfare. Or, perhaps, the spouse of the veteran could take the kids to the huge holiday parade while the veteran stays home and wraps gifts.
- Get the help you need. But even careful planning doesn’t always avoid the need for additional help during the holidays. Holiday stress can degrade a person’s mental health no matter what so plan on making an extra counselling (or other professional) appointment during the holidays.
- Give yourself permission to feel the way you feel.The fact is you might not feel as good as you used to. You might not feel the holiday merriment that other people expect you to or be able to express the emotions that others expect you to. This is okay and is likely part of your recovery journey. Know that it’s okay to feel and act differently than you did before combat.
Because even if holidays are tough, and they certainly can be, there are always bits and pieces that a person – even a person with combat PTSD – can enjoy. It may not be all the moments the veteran used to enjoy and the enjoyment level may not, at least initially, be the same, but some enjoyment can be had during this season if the veteran and his or her loved ones learn to make realistic plans and tackle the combat PTSD symptoms head-on.
And saying that, I wish you all happy holidays and the best in the coming year.