Be mindful of the Ghost of Christmas Past

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year” or so the refrain goes. Everywhere we look, on billboards, social media, shop adverts and the inevitable, cheesy, Christmas movie, there are happy smiling faces, laughing children, plentiful supplies of food and drink and messages of peace, love and joy. Each year the pressure for a perfect family Christmas seems to exponentially grow but for many the reality of this Christmas is far out of reach.

For too many this expectation, along with the huge pressures, emotionally, socially and financially make this a challenging time of year.  For those who have experienced abuse and trauma, Christmas and New Year can feel unmanageable. Where this experience has been within a faith setting this can bring many additional challenges. Interaction with faith, faith images, bible verses, prayers, choirs and religious services can all trigger an unhealthy response. The Christmas experience for those that have experienced abuse and trauma within faith can be isolated, disconnected and vulnerable as the ghost of Christmas past (and the past generally) looms large.

The ghost of Christmas past is described by Charles Dickens as an unearthly and strange creature.

“As its belt sparkled and glittered, now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body; of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again, distinct and clear as ever.”
A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

This shifting shape and changing of form may resonate for those still dealing with past trauma and abuse and all the memories of trauma moving to the forefront or sometimes lurking in the back of the mind. Sometimes being one thing then another then being as clear as day and very real. Often the ghost of Christmas past may take on a life of its own, as a minefield of triggers, flashbacks and panic attacks are negotiated.

Sometimes with the best will in the world, family, friends, neighbours and colleagues of those who experienced abuse and trauma within faith, don’t fully understand the long-term impacts of these experiences. Some don’t understand the abuse and trauma and some don’t understand the faith elements of this. This can put relationships under strain and leave those who have had these experiences feeling isolated, disconnected and vulnerable at a time that is meant to be about to be all about love, peace and belonging.

Whilst it is unlikely that we can completely avoid the ghost of Christmas past there are some tips that may make things easier to manage.

Let it go.

If everyone was honest, Christmas and New Year rarely meet our expectations. So, why do we continue to cling to the concept of a perfect Christmas when we are all human and life is rarely, if ever, perfect? If there is only one gift that we give this Christmas, letting go of the concept of a perfect Christmas would make a better Christmas for everyone!

If we can all relax more and worry less about getting everything right, we can avoid the frustration and disappointment when we inevitably don’t achieve perfection. Letting go of trying to achieve perfection and being mindful of our own and others personal limits and boundaries will mean everyone is more likely to enjoy this time of year.

Be clear on your boundaries.

It can be difficult for those who have experienced abuse and trauma to set and maintain boundaries. Consider thinking through what your non-negotiable boundaries are.

Developing a plan or a phrase that can be used when someone tries to override these boundaries can be a useful strategy to feeling more secure in maintaining these boundaries.

Be aware of triggers, stress and pressure points and have a plan for managing a crisis.

Triggers come in many forms and Christmas is no exception. Scents, bright colours, Christmas music or some Christmas movies, certain alcohols and foods may trigger memories, trauma to be revisited or anxiety and panic.

Being aware of these is the first step in avoiding or managing these. If you feel comfortable letting family, friends or neighbours that you visit can help in managing potential triggering situations.

Having some strategies in place to manage any crisis triggers, anxiety or panic attacks can be useful in feeling more secure. There is some useful advice on Mind regarding Planning for a mental health crisis – Mind

Stress and pressure points can be dealt with reframing Christmas and by being clear on boundaries. It is also worth considering how you can manage difficult situations that may be stressful or pressured.

Don’t go into stressful situations alone.

If we know that a situation is likely to be stressful or difficult then there is the option of taking someone with you for support. This can also give a reason to leave if it becomes too much. It is sensible for one of you to remain sober so that you can easily leave.

If you are aware that a situation is likely to be stressful and that it will be difficult to leave then it is worth considering whether the risk of putting yourself in that situation is too high. There is no obligation for you to attend potentially stressful situations.

Have an escape plan and take time out if you need to.

One of the best strategies for dealing with a stressful or pressured situation is to take some time out from it or remove yourself entirely from the situation. Having a clear plan to leave will help you to feel secure and better able to cope.

Going out for a walk or sitting in another room can often de-escalate stressful and pressured situations. It is also perfectly acceptable to leave a difficult situation and go home if it becomes too stressful or pressured.

Keep your emotional health, well-being and self care at the centre.

More than anything else we need to go gently and slowly into the festive season. Don’t push yourself to do anything that might trigger an unhealthy reaction or cause unnecessary stress. It is important that we lower our high expectations of ourselves.  Self compassion and self care are even more vital at Christmas and New Year. Challenging the self critical voice and asking would I speak to anyone else in this way can be helpful in at least pausing our self criticism.

Getting plenty of rest, physical exercise and eating as healthily as you can at Christmas all helps.

For more ideas on Emotional Health, Well-being and self care visit our website Survivor and Supporter Resources – Replenished


Christmas and New Year can be a time of love, peace, joy and connection to others but we must be aware that not everyone we meet will have the same experience. We also need to be aware that the pressure to be happy and joyful at this time of year can add considerable pressure to those who are finding this time of year difficult.

The greatest gifts that we can give this year are love and understanding for ourselves and for those who have had experiences of trauma and abuse.

Let us go gently and slowly with great care into this festive season being mindful of the ghost of Christmas past.

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