Surviving Holiday Cheer

CPTSD Foundation
8 min readDec 4, 2023

Every year, survivors face a world gone mad. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s bring with them countless traditions, and people buy things they cannot afford as gifts.

When you are a survivor of severe and repeated childhood abuse, you often equate the holidays with sour memories of what happened. To make matters worse, the stores are all dressed up with Christmas decorations and Christmas music blaring from the ceiling.

In this article, we will attempt to tackle how to survive holiday cheer when you have complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

Did you experience hell when you were a child during the holiday season? If you have complex post-traumatic stress disorder, the answer is a resounding most likely. CPTSD forms as a result of experiencing repeated abuse and neglect, and because of the memories of those times, we equate Christmas back then to the holidays now.

The confusion of now and then is complete when you throw in flashbacks and attend dinners and parties with people who were complacent in your abuse. Even if they did not touch you, you may still remember the fact that these people did not help you when you needed them most.

Christmas today is a different animal because you now have the power to control your life, including who you are around during the holidays. Focus on the fact that you, as an adult, can say yes or no to people when asked to attend a function.

The word no is a complete sentence.

Feeling the Pressure to Make Christmas Perfect

Christmas isn’t pleasurable for many Americans, as 41% strive hard to make their Christmas perfect, something no one can achieve.

They bake cookies, hang stockings, and decorate their homes and lawns, yet they still feel they have fallen short on Christmas day. Americans especially have an inflated expectation of what makes a perfect holiday season. However, those who have lived through complex trauma and now have complex post-traumatic stress disorder feel overwhelmed by all the ho-ho-ho and jolliness.

It is critical to understand that there is no such thing as the perfect Christmas and that what you expect is genuinely just a fantasy. No family gets along 100% of their Christmas’ and life throws curves at all humans, making Christmas a traumatic time of year.

Those of us who have addictions especially suffer because we believe and have unfortunately been told that they are the cause of a ruined Christmas. However, it is equally valid that everyone in America has been misled by well-meaning folks looking for a scapegoat during the holidays.

Yes, addictions are sometimes the root cause of much misery during the holidays, but it is certainly not the only cause.

We have heard and experienced the holiday blues occasionally, a temporary feeling of being down when others enjoy themselves. However, people who have complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) formed because of childhood abuse suffer during the holiday season.

Survivors find themselves struggling to keep their heads up because they are haunted by expectations and memories of what happened long ago. Indeed, according to a NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) survey, people living with a mental health diagnosis have more difficulties during the holidays. They found that 24% of survivors and people who have a diagnosed mental illness find the holiday season makes their condition much worse, with 40% claiming it made them feel somewhat worse.

NAMI includes in their article on the holiday blues some points to consider.

  • Those who have a mental health diagnosis are often negatively affected by the holidays.
  • The holiday blues are not mental illness. Instead, it is a short-term mental health condition.
  • The holiday blues must be taken seriously because such feelings can lead to depression and anxiety.
  • Alcohol is a depressant that can cause more stress and depression.

Keep reading for some tips on overcoming the holiday blues.

Mental Illness and the Holiday Season

Those of us who live with the effects of complex trauma find it very hard to be cheerful when everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves. However, our viewpoint of how others are happy differs from the fact that 38% of people surveyed said they were living with increased stress that can lead to physical illnesses and substance abuse.

Often, survivors must decide to be involved with their family of origin during the holidays or to remain alone or with friends. Deciding to be with family brings with it flashbacks to childhood abuse and possible arguments over differing opinions, leading to feelings of overwhelm.

There are five tips I can offer to help you manage your mental health during the holiday season.

  1. Manage your holiday expectations. Don’t expect your dysfunctional family to behave themselves just because it is Christmas. Keep your expectations low, and you won’t be overwhelmed when they aren’t met.
  2. Let go of the fantasy. Norman Rockwell was a painter for the Saturday Evening Post; he did not draw from experience. The families he portrayed in his pictures do not exist. Let me repeat: those people who look so happy in Norman Rockwell’s paintings are NOT real. They didn’t exist then, and they do not exist now. They were a fantasy.
  3. Check to see if you are okay. If you must visit family on a holiday, watch how you feel mentally. If you are overwhelmed, use courtesy and dismiss yourself from the situation. Go home and rest. Doing so does NOT make you a bad daughter or son.
  4. Plan ahead. You do not need to remain with your family for the entire time. Instead, plan how long you will expose yourself to your family and, if needed, go into the bathroom and lock the door until you feel calmer.
  5. Use deep breathing exercises. Use deep breathing to help yourself remain grounded.

If you have a mental health diagnosis, it is critical to keep up and improve your self-care. Remember to eat well, drink plenty of fluids, and care for your body’s needs. No matter what happens or what you believe might happen, you must take good care of yourself.

What May Help You Survive Better

We’ve identified many ways survivors struggle during the holidays. Now, let us fill in the blanks about what you can do to help yourself feel better.

You can do six things to feel better during the holiday season.

  1. Practice self-care. Because the holidays are triggering for survivors, self-care can become a problem. Focus on both your physical and mental health by eating proper food, avoiding alcohol or drugs, and keeping an eye out for emotional overwhelm. Treat yourself well, and your Christmas will go more smoothly and have less of a negative effect on you.
  2. Validate how you feel. While society insists that you be cheerful, this is not always how survivors feel about Christmas. Society shames us if we feel negative emotions during the holidays. Understand and feel your emotions and validate and accept how you feel. Your emotions are neither good nor bad; they simply are.
  3. Say NO. It is vital to understand that you are not required by law to allow others to trample over your feelings or to attend any holiday bashes. If a person or an event is triggering, you can say the little word ‘no’ and feel guilt-free for doing so.
  4. Set firm boundaries. Before the holidays, consider what you can tolerate and cannot. There is no need to feel you must invite your abuser(s) to any function you attend or even acknowledge your abuser(s). If your abusers are invited, stay home. If you feel a topic is off-limits, by all means, let your feelings be known, and if others at the function do not respect your boundaries, you have the right to leave.
  5. Plan ahead for triggers. Planning to manage how to handle triggering people, places, or things is advantageous. Plan to practice mindfulness, deep breathing, walking, or leaving the situation.
  6. Skip the family. Instead of spending time with people who trigger you, maybe it is time to consider spending the holidays with supportive people. You don’t need your family of origin if you plan to celebrate with a family of choice.

There are many other things you can do to minimize the trauma of holiday time; indeed, too many to list in this piece. Just know that you are no longer a victim, and you alone control where you go and who you see on Christmas day or any other holiday.

Ending Our Time Together

The holidays aren’t meant to be a time of suffering. Rather, the holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and love. I have found two families of choice that sustain me during these holidays and the dark days of winter.

Reach out and volunteer at Christmas. Help feed people experiencing homelessness or spend time with veterans instead of going to your family member’s house where you are mistreated. Seek out families of choice in senior centers or other local groups. If you wish, you can also find a marvelous family of choice by joining an online support group.

Keep your therapist’s phone number or email address near, but try not to disturb them if you can because they deserve a good Christmas, too. The day after the holiday ends, call or write to your therapist if you need support.

Don’t worry; there are three more pieces in this series after this one to help you get through the holidays without losing your mind. Please keep in mind that you survived the abuse that caused you harm, and you can survive the holiday season, too.

“Even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there.” — Stephen Chbosky

“Don’t let your struggle become your identity. Your illness does not define you. Your strength and courage do.” — Unknown

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CPTSD Foundation

Successfully equipping complex trauma survivors and practitioners with compassionate support, skills, and trauma-informed education since 2014.