What did you do for Halloween this past week? Did you dress up? Did you avoid dressing up? Whatever you decided to do, did you once think about the negative effects of Halloween on the psyche? If not, you are not alone. Many of us would rarely, if ever, consider the negative effects of Halloween on the psychological and emotional health of individuals who have a history of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, have witnessed the death of a loved one, experience post-traumatic stress symptoms such as hypervigilance or flashbacks, and/or has suffered from night terrors in regards to a traumatic experience. This article will discuss the negative effects of certain aspects of Halloween that might do more harm than good.
For many of us, Halloween is a time of imagination where kids, teens, and adults enjoy the allure of fantasy and play. It is a psychological and emotional release from the stressors of everyday life. But despite all of the fun and festivities, there can be a downside to Halloween for individuals who have a history of trauma. As a child and adolescent therapist working with multiple families who have endured trauma, I have seen my fair share of traumatic experience and I’ve been challenged over and over to treat youths who are easily triggered by things most of us would rarely consider to be traumatizing. For example, a 17-year-old girl who had been repeatedly sexually abused by her mother’s paramour was often triggered around Valentines day (the day of the abuse) and could not stand to see hearts, chocolate candy, or teddy bears. Another one of my former cases involved a 9-year-old boy who would be triggered by the sun in the morning. He experienced his father yanking him out of bed in the morning at 7:45 am, at exactly the same time every single day, on days when the sun would shine. This young man continues to be triggered by the sun every day around 7:45 am. For many of us, trauma is a nebulous concept with symptoms that just do not make sense to the natural mind. We tend to overlook or ignore the effects of daily life on the individual who has experienced trauma. For someone who has fought in the War on Iraq, for example, certain parts of Halloween might trigger negative thoughts of suicide, homicide, and death. For a child who has been sexually abused by an extended family member in a dark and cold room might find Halloween decorations and “darkness” disturbing. As difficult as it might be to believe or fathom this, it is worth consideration and forethought.
It’s important that we understand how daily life including holidays can trigger negative emotions in people we love. It’s often best to have a discussion with that individual, if possible, about their thoughts and feelings on celebrating certain holidays. What seems innocent and fun to us, might be psychologically and emotionally disturbing. As a result, I have listed 5 ways that Halloween might negatively affect someone who has experienced trauma. Some issues that might come up during Halloween include but is not limited to:
- Reminders of the past trauma: As stated above, individuals who have experienced severe trauma might find it very difficult to cope with certain aspects of Halloween such as viewing skeletons, blood, fake scars, or similar things. We must be reminded that while the intent of Halloween is to engage in fun and to be lighthearted, individuals with trauma histories, self-injurious behaviors (such as cutting, burning, etc), or thoughts of death and dying may struggle.
- Serving as a trigger to negative emotions: Halloween can be a pre-cursor to negative emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. A former client of mine once left a Halloween party and went home to cut herself. She ended up in the emergency room and her chief complaint was “I heard a Halloween song that reminded me of my childhood and all of the abuse I experienced in my grandmother’s basement.”
- Stirring night-terrors or post-traumatic symptoms: Night terrors are something that children and teens seem to experience more than adults. Because of the psychological and emotional vulnerabilities of traumatized individuals, it is important to monitor the individual who has a history of nightmares, night terrors, or post-traumatic symptoms such as hypervigilance, increased anxiety, or flashbacks. Flashbacks, increased anxiety, and hypervigilance often strikes out of nowhere and can be very disabling. The best thing to do in situations like this is to avoid situations that are likely to trigger these symptoms. It is also best to keep young children and vulnerable teens away from stimuli that might trigger negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
- Serving as a precursor to SIB (self-injurious behaviors) and SI (suicidal ideations): A former 19-year-old client once said to me: “I felt triggered by all the noise, decorations, and thoughts going through my mind. I didn’t know how to cope so I cut myself.” This young lady ended up in the ER making suicidal statements.
- Overstimulation of individuals with severe anxiety: Halloween is full of energy and stimulation. One of the reasons so many people enjoy Halloween is because of the stimulation that comes from the fun of fear, uncertainty, costumes, and lots of candy and parties. Sometimes all of this stimulation can lead to increased levels of anxiety. It is important to monitor individuals who experience panic attacks. It can also be helpful to have a plan on how to cope with panic attacks when they strike.
Trauma is a complex phenomenon that is intermixed with biology/genes, environmental influence, and physiology. The chemicals in the brain and body work together during traumatizing circumstances to create real and lasting changes in the body. For example, humans have a stress hormone in the body known as cortisol and when cortisol gets out of control, the body becomes stressed and the brain responds in negative ways. The body sort of goes through “mini breakdowns” or “burn out” periods. With all the physiological changes in addition to the individual’s subjective experience of the trauma, the person becomes more hypervigilant and, in some cases, struggles to trust others. A host of psychological and emotional changes occur and makes functioning in daily life very difficult and near impossible for many individuals. That’s why keeping Halloween lighthearted and innocent might be the best option for some individuals.
As always, feel free to include your thoughts below. We often learn best through discussion. To watch a video on how the brain reacts to fear, visit my website at: Anchoredinknowledge.com
I wish you well