Does Christmas make you feel anxious, nervous or depressed? (I’m talking about Christmas because it’s the tradition I grew up with, but this information probably applies equally to other holidays.)
Over the holidays, do you end up spending time with people you love but don’t really like? (You know – the people who, if you weren’t related to them, you wouldn’t be friends?) Do you feel obligated to go to parties full of strangers? Or miss out on parties because of anxiety and stress-induced symptoms? Do you feel pressured to buy gifts you can’t afford for people who don’t need them?
In his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Zampolsky PhD points out that there is plenty of scientific evidence that IBS is a largely stress-driven condition. And Christmas is a stressful time of year.
When you have IBS, there are some powerful reasons to feel stressed at Christmas, even if you’d prefer to enjoy it. These reasons have to do with “early adverse life experiences” or EALs.
A study at the Oppenheimer Family Center of Neurobiology of Stress, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA showed that when you have EALs before the age of 18, your chance of having IBS skyrockets. Emotional abuse was the biggest predictor of IBS. Neurologist Robert Scaer MD points out that when you have been traumatized at an early age – or at any age – until that trauma is discharged (I’ll get to that later), you continue to react to it throughout your life.
What does that mean for Christmas and IBS?
It means that if unpleasant stuff happened to you on or around other Christmases, your brain stores it up and you have “anniversary trauma.” This is exactly what can trigger IBS symptoms during the holidays. Yes, Christmas is RE-traumatizing you. It’s enough to make anyone hate Christmas.
So what can you do about it?
1) Tap or choose an alternative.
Learn how to do acupressure tapping from the videos on this site or on our YouTube channel, and tap on your physical pain, emotional distress, and uncomfortable memories. This will help to neutralize your trauma triggers and reduce the possibility of having stress-based symptoms.
Kathy and I mention tapping often on this site. That’s because it has been so helpful to us, our clients, and many readers of this site. You can learn it for free. But if you don’t like it, look for another mind/body technique to use. Dr. Scaer, who spent 30 years running a chronic pain clinic for car accident victims, says the most effective techniques are ones like tapping that engage the mind and the body simultaneously.
Some people swear by hypnotherapy or EMDR. Some like Peter Levinson’s Somatic Experiencing or David Bercelli’s Revolutionary Trauma Release Process. Others use Dr. John Sarno’s Mind/Body Prescription. The methods for discharging old trauma are out there – pick the one that suits you the best and use it. It has the potential to transform your life.
2) Notice your triggers.
Instead of thinking of Christmas as a generally stressful time, start to notice specifically what and who triggers you. This can be a tricky business at first because many of these triggers will be unconscious until you start recognizing them.
But if you notice that you feel uncomfortable around certain people or situations or songs or food smells or times of day, that’s a good starting place. It might be just the thought of a certain person or event that pushes you over your threshold of comfort. Then you have a choice about what to do – tap on the situation, avoid it, or recognize it and realize that it is no longer a threat because you’re older, bigger and stronger now.
3) Be kind to yourself.
If you choose to avoid a person or situation (sometimes the best option), be kind to yourself. There’s no need to feel guilty or self-medicate with alcohol or chocolate cake that might cause you digestive problems. Since you are the person who is living your life, you have the right to choose how you want to spend your time and with whom.
4) Create new traditions.
You don’t have to do things the same way just because you’ve always done them that way. If the traditions in your household are painful reminders of the past, or you simply don’t like them, discuss creating new traditions with your family. What do each of you think would be fun, satisfying, or spiritual for the occasion?
Be prepared for some resistance and for the change to be slow. People often need a few months to get used to the idea of doing things differently. (The joke about new ideas in the scientific world is that science progresses one funeral at a time.)
For years, one friend’s large family Christmas included another family I’ll call the Smiths. The Smiths had once been important to my friend but, as she evolved, they drifted apart. However, her family had become so used to seeing them at Christmas that the Smiths were automatically invited, even though no one in my friend’s family saw them the entire rest of the year!
My friend realized that this was a tradition that had to change, especially as no one in her family particularly enjoyed the Smiths and they were tired of the financial obligation of buying the extra gifts.
5) Feel free to opt out.
Who said you had to do the whole big Christmas thing anyway? I’m not saying you have to go around like Scrooge, but there’s more than one way to celebrate.
Christmas can be very over-stimulating for people who have experienced trauma. Perhaps you would prefer a quiet day with one or two loved ones than the full blow-out with a dozen relatives.
Decorating the tree may bring back bad memories. Don’t do it. No one said you had to have a tree.
Buying and wrapping presents may feel like an insurmountable chore. Opt out. People with IBS are often chemically sensitive. Going to stores and malls exposes you to LOTS of chemicals and can be quite stressful. Brightly-coloured Christmas paper is full of chemicals, too.
What about wrapping in fabric bags or re-use gift bags that have already out-gassed most of their toxic smell? What about agreeing with your family to make gifts, or re-gift items, or to choose gifts under $5, to prevent financial stress? Or what about having each family member write down what they like most about the others or the great qualities they perceive in each other? Most people don’t receive this kind of tribute until their funeral. Why wait?
What are YOUR suggestions for a low-stress Christmas that will help prevent stress-induced IBS symptoms? Please leave me a comment with your ideas and thoughts.