Navigating the Holidays with Complex Trauma and Without Family Ties

Discovering meaning & resilience in going it alone

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW, RSW
5 min readDec 31, 2023

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Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Many of my therapy clients recovering from complex trauma rooted in horrendous histories of cruelty and neglect are relieved that the holiday season is winding up. They dreaded the unavoidable queries about holiday plans. Rather than launch into detail about their misfortunes they’d render a generic, albeit fictitious response. “Family stuff,” typically sufficed.

Others, indifferent to societal conventions, simply stated they don’t partake in seasonal festivities. No gift giving, family gatherings or parties. It’s just another day in their life. Not surprisingly, given the collective expectation to be submerged in jovial bliss, they are often misconceived as cynical grinches.

Yet the pressures of holiday conformity takes an emotional toll on everyone, not just those without family. Take for example a survey conducted by market research company OnePoll, which revealed that in spite of all the emphasis on familial unity in the holiday season, 75% of 2000 American respondents reported that it takes just about four hours of socializing with family before the longing for alone time kicks in. Lack of privacy, interpersonal drama and resultant irritation were cited as the primary sources of concern.

Moreover, the increases in domestic violence and emergency room admissions for binge alcohol consumption, along with the U.S. Department of Transportation reporting Thanksgiving as the deadliest day of the year for traffic accident fatalities due to higher than usual alcohol consumption, suggests that holiday stress is indeed ubiquitous.

For those however, who have spent their lives struggling with toxic familial dynamics, the oppressive heaviness about obligatory holiday gatherings with relatives awakens a plethora of traumatic memories involving alcoholism, addictions, mental illness and heinous abuse. While the rest of the world seems to be enthralled with kindred celebrations, those fearing that dysfunctional familial festivities may trigger c-ptsd symptoms or induce them to act out through holiday sanctioned spending, drinking, drugging, over indulgent eating and relationally reckless behavior, are inclined to choose a different…

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Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW, RSW

Complex trauma clinician and writer. Survivor turned thriver, with a love for world travel, the arts and nature. I think outside the box. Sheritherapist.com