Surviving the Holidays with Complex PTSD

November 22, 2018 Traci Powell

Surviving the holidays with complex PTSD can be a challenge, but with some boundaries and self-protection, it’s not impossible. Learn more at HealthyPlace.

Thanksgiving is here, which means the holiday season is upon us; for me, the holidays come with complex posttraumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD, sometimes shortened to C-PTSD). Many people find this time of year joyful and triumphant, loving the hustle and bustle. When you live with complex PTSD, however, this can be an overwhelming season filled with many emotions.

The Challenge of the Holidays with Complex PTSD

I have a love-hate relationship with the holidays because of complex PTSD. Each year, I want to relax and enjoy the spirit of the season, making new happy memories with my kids. I try my best, but it never seems to fail that, at some point, it is a challenge for me to keep it together. I find myself falling into depression because while I love watching my kids and the excitement the season brings them, watching them also reminds me of how I felt at their ages during this time of year. 

Holiday get-togethers when I was a kid always included my molester ("Common Symptoms in Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse"). No matter how hard I try, I can't seem to keep him out of my holidays today. He's been out of my life for years, yet the memories are constantly present. When I see certain holiday symbols, I'm taken back to those days and the abused little girl in me becomes very overwhelmed, anxious and sad. 

Also, this time of year can be confusing when you live with complex PTSD from childhood trauma, especially when that trauma involved your family. Everyone wants to be connected to their family. That need can weaken your defenses as you long to be part of a loving family that celebrates the holidays together, even though you may know being around them could be harmful to you. In addition, family expectations during the holidays can cause you to put yourself into situations that may be triggering and even unsafe.

I'm no different. While my molester is no longer in my life, I am still exposed to my alcoholic father. His usual beer habit always turns to whiskey starting on Thanksgiving Day, making him meaner than ever. While I have gotten very good about no longer allowing his bad behavior in my life, during the holidays I still long for the perfect Norman Rockwell family holiday scene, so my kids and I spend each Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner with my parents.

Finding a Balance During the Holidays with Complex PTSD

I'm determined yet again to not let Christmas past ruin my Christmas present. A long time ago, I decided for my kids that I would not allow myself to become a Scrooge or Grinch, but in order for me to not go there, I have to put certain personal holiday rules in place. I strongly encourage you to do the same. 

Complex PTSD can leave you thinking that if the holidays aren't all good, they are all bad, but you can find a balance and allow yourself some comfort and joy. 

Steps You Can Take to Survive the Holidays with Complex PTSD

  1. The most important thing you can do to protect yourself over the holidays with complex PTSD is to shore up your boundaries. Yes, I see my parents, but I do it on my terms and set limits for how long I will spend at their house. In addition, my father now knows that I will not tolerate his drinking; so, if I feel his behavior is going to be detrimental to me or my kids, I am prepared to leave. You have a right to say no and to remove yourself from any situation that makes you uncomfortable or is too triggering. 
  2. Don't over commit yourself. The holidays can make you feel obligated to attend events you may not ordinarily feel comfortable with. It bears repeating that you have a right to say no. Over-committing can become overwhelming and lead to increased anxiety and stress, which will make your complex PTSD harder to manage.
  3. Have compassion for yourself. When you've had a childhood that wasn't filled with happy holiday memories, it makes sense the holidays today can make you sad. Give yourself permission to feel for the child you were.
  4. Make your own new happy memories and traditions. Each year, I look forward to the traditions my kids and I have created. I let the sad little girl inside of me mourn what she went through, but now I also show her the joy she should have always had.

Complex PTSD can be quite a challenge during the holiday season, but you have the choice to make your holidays whatever you want them to be now. I hope you choose to protect yourself and find a way to enjoy the spirit of the season if even just a little.

APA Reference
Powell, T. (2018, November 22). Surviving the Holidays with Complex PTSD, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Author: Traci Powell

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October, 27 2021 at 7:52 am

I feel so bad over the christmas and the run up to it as my sister died on boxing day in a car crash coming to my house a few years ago. I have never put pressure on myself over that time as i don't do well around that time but this year i have a job and i have taken a contract and i will be working on christmas day. i can not say how anxious this makes me feel and how unsafe i feel not being with my husband on that day and i don't know how i will cope as i normally go for a walk or stay out of the way of others i am thinking of giving my job up as i don't think i can cope.

Alice Goodman
November, 25 2021 at 9:30 pm

I am so very sorry that you are dealing with this grief and trauma. I hope you will be able to do this with a minimum of pain. ❤️

Karole Waters
December, 21 2018 at 7:28 am

Wow, while I was reading this it sounded exactly like me!! I put on that mask of being happy during the Holidays but deep down that Little Girl is hurting and crying. Thank you so much for posting this.

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