Helping a loved one is difficult when it comes to addiction and mental health issues. Veterans who return from combat zones or active duty with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can find everything challenging from waking every day to sleeping soundly at night, going to work, shopping, or even being around family without disruption. Their moods, behavior, and thoughts may be confounding to the family but the holidays can be particularly stressful for them. Learn some tips on how to support a veteran with PTSD during the holidays and provide a safe space for them to feel comfortable navigating the challenges.
Know They Will Be Hard
Setting expectations upfront is key when dealing with a loved one who has PTSD symptoms. There is something that family may not understand, known as ‘moral injury,’ which comes from harming another person. It is not unusual people in combat zones kill someone else, either inadvertently or on purpose as part of their mission. For those who live with this every single day, they may find that entering the holiday season triggers memories of the event or events. It can feel like a moral judgment of character on that person throughout the season. When others are promoting goodwill, a veteran may not feel very cheery. They may also not feel like Christmas seasons spent away from family are able to be renewed with family now they are home. Their memories of those times away stick with them and are harder to release. During a season focused on the goodness of others, they may see the worst in themselves, and their past, as part of ‘survivor’s guilt.’ Combat veterans often experience triggers with anniversaries and holidays because they are reminded of what they lost and what others have lost because of their actions. The sights and sounds of certain holidays are triggering, also, so being aware of how traditions or elements of the holidays impact a veteran with PTSD can be helpful when planning celebrations.
Talk About the Holidays
It helps to not assume everything that used to happen is still okay. Communication is key when it comes to deciding together what will work for the veteran, now they are wrestling with PTSD. Be prepared to spend time listening carefully to what the family member needs. Some things to ask may include:
- What fears do they have?
- How do they hope to celebrate?
- What do they want to avoid this year?
- How can they be supported by others?
It may be upsetting or frustrating to hear things have to change. After all, holidays are about annual traditions. It may be time to start new traditions that are less upsetting for the loved one. Other times, the things a person agrees on work for them may bring new joy. Try to focus on that rather than what is lost from the past and seek ways to avoid triggers for their PTSD, which will make the holidays more enjoyable for everyone.
Leave Baggage Behind
Veterans are already carrying a lot into their present-day from the past. The last thing they need is to be reminded of lots of things from the past which is out of their control. They may have loved certain things in the past, but now that seems a distant past they barely remember. It may be due to chronic pain from traumatic injury, a changed perception of what is important, or knowing what is possible now is not what was possible back then. Panic attacks, fear, anxiety, and other symptoms of PTSD can keep people from living the full lives they once lived. Let them communicate their needs and try to accept it without adding extra baggage of guilt or shame for what used to be (even if it is unintentional).
Give a Heads Up
Other family members who are not around that much maybe visiting around the holidays. It helps to let them know what is acceptable and what is not for the holidays this year. Make sure to tell your family members what they can do to be supportive and how to engage with the loved one without triggering them. It is not up to everyone else to tiptoe around, but it is helpful to have a ‘primer’ on what to say, how to express themselves openly and communicate, but also what to avoid to support the loved one in recovery. If they are dealing with addiction issues, this is particularly helpful. They may be able to voice this themselves, but it helps if they are not already being triggered at the moment.
One of the best ways to engage with veterans over the holidays is to embrace new traditions. Finding new ways to celebrate now helps enhance the spirit of the holidays without creating woe and worry about the past. They are working hard to heal, so family members can work hard alongside them to find what works and create space to heal. There is a helpful insight to gain from simply listening and paying attention to what they need. Hope resides in knowing people see them, they are heard and known as they are.
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