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When the Holidays Hurt

Self | Michelle Stiffler | 7 mins

I was headed to a local organization to present a trauma-informed training. It had been a busy morning, but I had time to review my content during the commute. A few miles down the road, a close friend called, and sensing something was wrong, I answered. For the remainder of my drive, I listened as my friend talked through the complicated emotions that were overwhelming her that morning. She couldn’t explain why they were so intense or what had triggered them. Cooler weather had finally come to the Valley and I knew from working with women in crisis that seasons are powerful triggers. Even if the mind has forgotten a painful memory, changing seasons and the many sensations of a season can activate the body’s memory of trauma, distress, or grief. “Was this season a difficult season for you in the past?” I asked my friend. She paused, then responded with a whisper, “Yes. It was.”

The holiday season is known for joy, warmth, and togetherness, but for many people, it is a season of complicated emotions. Increased stress is a factor, typically regarding family gatherings, financial pressure, and unattainable ideals for the perfect holiday. Memories of past holidays often contain loved ones lost to death, divorce, or distance, causing grief and an overwhelming sense of irreversible loss. Family dysfunction, estrangement, trauma, crisis, or extreme change play a part in the complexity, too. And nearly two-thirds of individuals juggling mental health issues say their condition worsens around the holidays.

Managing difficult emotions during a season of cheer can feel downright lonely. If you feel detached from the season’s bright lights and belonging, don’t lose hope. A few simple practices can steady you and pull you closer to Jesus.

Acknowledge your experience.

Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations: Each of these Bible books acknowledge grief, suffering, and hardship. The authors of these books were people of faith who believed God was big enough to handle their questions. They noticed their pain, called it by name, and laid it before God with honesty and humility. This is an important process, but if you’re used to dismissing or shoving negative emotions, identifying specific feelings may be challenging. Get underneath emotional complexity with one of these exercises:

  • Journal. No complete sentences, no grammar rules, just get your ruminations on paper. Start with a word if that’s all you’ve got. Continue this practice for a week and observe the themes that surface. 

  • List the triggers or physical discomfort that indicate a need for focused care—outbursts of anger or unexplained sadness, avoiding people or places, headaches or body aches, dreams, adverse reactions toward sounds, sights, or smells, apathy toward your typical routine or things you enjoy, etc. This is about YOU, so anything you notice is allowed on the list.  

  • Spend time in reflective prayer and ask God to reveal what’s happening in your heart, then wait on his revelation. 

  • Ask a trusted friend or family member to help you process what you’re thinking or feeling. If deeper work is needed, consult Sun Valley’s list of recommended therapists.

Accept your humanness and adjust.

Emotional or mental loads take a physical toll, limiting your capacity. That diminished ability to keep up with your normal life may feel like an identity crisis, particularly if you’re accustomed to doing, going, and participating. Say ‘no’ to things? Prioritize sleep? Ask for help? Who are you right now!? You’re a human going through a hard time, so have compassion toward yourself. Resilience is not a force; it is a bending. Bend to your physical, mental, and spiritual needs by focusing on four C’s: 

Care. Tend to basic needs: proper nutrition, sleep, movement, and deep breathing.

Comfort. In uncomfortable seasons, rhythmic activities (walking, preparing a favorite meal, or creating order), soothing sensations (a warm blanket or hot shower), and purposeful relaxation (a light-hearted movie or a cup of coffee while sitting outside) help calm the mind and body.

Contribute. Do something you’re good at doing. This is not about achievement or busyness, it’s about resourcing yourself and letting your unique design shine. Difficult seasons often pull the body and mind toward distractions, numbing, or consuming. Choose to contribute in small ways instead.

Connection. You were created to live relationally. This can increase loneliness around the holidays when people are busy and less available. Make little connections - a quick text or phone call - to loved ones who are likely to respond. Most importantly, pray. Your soul craves spiritual connection in every season.

Appreciate God’s presence and goodness.

According to Scripture, no circumstance can separate you from God’s love (Romans 8:35-39). He won’t leave you (Deut. 31:6, Hebrews 13:5-6, Matthew 28:20). He sees you in your pain and He willingly carries it with you (Genesis 16:13, Matthew 11:28-30). He knows everything about you, He watches over you, and keeps you (Psalm 121). These promises are timeless. Regardless of your home and holiday experiences - past or present - God is unchanging. He is with you. His goodness is all around. Ask Him to make His presence visible this season and then expect to see Him in a personal way. 

Written By

Michelle Stiffler

Trauma Specialist, Personal Trainer, Barre Instructor, married mother of four, plus two sons-in-law, and proud Mimi. Michelle writes about responsive faith through a trauma-informed lens at and a variety of other publications.

Published on Dec 15, 2022