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Holiday Healing When Trauma Triggers Surface

“After a traumatic experience, the human system of self-preservation seems to go onto permanent alert, as if the danger might return at any moment.” 
― Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror

Definition of Relational Trauma: (Quote from, the website of Ron Doctor, P hD): Complex or Relational Trauma can arise from prolonged periods of aversive stress usually involving entrapment (psychological or physical), repeated violations of boundaries, betrayal, rejection and confusion marked by a lack of control and helplessness.  Common situations include being bullied, harassment, physical, sexual and emotional/verbal abuse, domestic violence and substance abuse, stalking, threats, separation and loss, unresolved grief and neglect (Doctor, R., 2017).  


Furthermore, relational trauma (or as some may define as Complex-PTSD), encompasses relationships where there exists a profound “violation of human connection” (Herman, 2015) in which healthy attachment is impaired and in some cases either severed or at minimum, injured significantly. Relational trauma is found in circumstances of child maltreatment, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, rape, psychological and emotional abuse, bullying, domestic violence, narcissistic abuse, abandonment, rejection, complex grief, traumatic loss and other forms of attachment betrayal or disruption (Heller, 2015).

Symptoms of Relational Trauma are often manifested during adult years, long after exposure to chronic, sustained  maltreatment as a child. Other forms of long term trauma exposure can include kidnapping, slavery, child exploitation rings, being taken hostage, prisoner of war, and exposure to political or neighborhood violence and also highlighted by an uneven power dynamic by the perpetrator(s). Trauma expert Peter Walker (2013) discusses the treatment of relational trauma in his seminal book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. He describes symptoms of Complex-PTSD/Relational Trauma as including hypervigilance, alterations in affect and difficulty regulating emotions, a chronic and pervasive sense of hopelessness, trauma bonding, dissociation, a sense of avoidance or alienation from safe relationships, and alterations in self-perceptions (Walker, P., 2013).  A child exposed to long term relational trauma and presenting for therapy could be defined as having experienced a Developmental Trauma Disorder, according to trauma expert Judith Herman (1992), as yet to be specifically defined in the DSM-5 (2015).

Help for Those Impacted by Relational Trauma:  The good news for those exposed to trauma, whether single-incident or long-term and chronic manifestation, trauma-informed and compassionate psychotherapy is available. Now more than ever, psychotherapists are trained in understanding the complex underpinnings of resilience and post-traumatic growth, even in the aftermath of unspeakable horror (Malchiodi, 2016). Fortunately, we know so much more now than ever about neuropsychology and how the brain heals.  Psychotherapists are learning how EMDR (Shapiro, 2001) in additional to expressive arts, mindfulness based cognitive therapies, somatic therapies, and other interventions are comprehensive and evidence-based in their merit towards long term trauma recovery (van der Kolk, 2015). With compassionate and qualified psychotherapy and motivation by the client, the survivor has all the hope in the world to heal.

The Ghosts of Christmases Past Often Resurface During Holidays:  Ebenezer Scrooge (Dickens, C. 1843) wasn’t the only person to be visited by unwelcome apparitions from prior chapters in one’s life. Oftentimes during the holidays, survivors of relational trauma (or complex PTSD) re-experience flashbacks of prior traumas.The holiday period (in the U.S. from Halloween through Valentine’s Day) is loaded with remembrances of milestones that went awry, due in large part by their history of chronic abuse and sense of lack of personal power. Clients benefit from seeking out qualified and compassionate support by trained and licensed clinicians who know trauma-informed and evidenced-based interventions to help survivors heal, especially during vulnerable periods like the holidays (Schneider, 2017). With help, motivation and fortitude, there is much hope for survivors to heal.


Beware of the Hook: Narcissists Tend to “Hoover” During the Holidays… (2017, November 24). Retrieved December 03, 2017, from

Herman, Judith (2015). Trauma and recovery: the aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror.Basic Books.

Kingsley, M. E. (1905). Christmas carol: Dickens. Boston: Palmer Co.

Loneliness rooted in relational trauma. (2016, May 30). Retrieved December 03, 2017, from

Malchiodi, C. (2016, September 27). Expressive Arts Therapies and Posttraumatic Growth. Retrieved December 03, 2017, from

R. (2011, October 26). RonDoctor. Retrieved December 03, 2017, from

Shapiro, F. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): basic principles, protocols and procedures. New York: Guilford Press.

van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. NY, NY: Penguin Books.

Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: from surviving to thriving: a guide and map for recovering from childhood trauma. Lafayette, CA: Azure Coyote.


Photo by kevin dooley

Holiday Healing When Trauma Triggers Surface

Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW

Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Los Angeles, CA. She provides psychotherapy for individuals experiencing trauma and loss (ranging from women's reproductive mental health to recovery from toxic relationships in love/work/family, from special needs parenting to grief work). She is also a writer, educator, and podcaster. Website:

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APA Reference
Schneider, A. (2018). Holiday Healing When Trauma Triggers Surface. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 16, 2019, from


Last updated: 12 Dec 2018
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