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Present for the Holidays: 1in6 Thursdays on the Joyful Heart Foundation Blog

In the holiday season, there are lots of chances to relearn the healing power of giving, even when we’re feeling our own fears and unmet needs rise to the surface. But I’m reminded of the airline flight attendants’ oft-repeated advice to “put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others.”

Holiday gatherings and demands for good cheer can be tough, especially for those who have had traumatic childhood experiences within their family or social networks. Safe connections to family and friends are vital to our healthy development and well-being. A betrayal of trust can shake or even sever a child’s presumption of safety. The resulting confusion about relationships can make any social interaction feel triggering long after the experience.

Many of us adults who have experienced childhood sexual abuse and other childhood traumas, find ourselves awash with those confused feeling as we’re repeatedly confronted with holiday promises of joy , connection and good will, which may run contrary to our memories of our own childhoods.

The key though is remembering the part about “pausing” and the “breathing.”

Over the years, I’ve found that when I allow myself to pause…and to breathe I can often turn the inevitable challenges that arise during the holidays into gifts of self care. The key though is remembering the part about “pausing” and the “breathing.”

A “grounding exercise” can help return our awareness to the present when unexpected triggers stir up the feelings from those negative childhood experiences. If feelings start to seem unmanageable, step in another room and try some self care.

I recently discovered an easily used grounding exercise in a book by Stephanie Covington, “Beyond Violence,” which she calls “Five Senses.” (Slightly modified here)

  1. Close your eyes or lower your eyelids
  2. Relax for a few moments. Take a few deep breaths and exhale slowly.
  3. Open you eyes when you are ready.
  4. Silently, identify five (untriggering) things you can see around you.
  5. Now identify four (untriggering) things you could feel or touch.
  6. Identify three (untriggering) things you can hear.
  7. Identify two (untriggering) things you can smell.
  8. Finally, identify what you can taste right now.

I’ve also been inspired by a scene in the Big Voice Pictures’ film “Boys and Men Healing,” which profiles several, remarkable men discussing their process of healing from being sexually abused as boys. One of the men, Tony Rogers, describes imagining a conversation with his child self.

“After ending my group, I walked on the beach that night,’’ he recalled. “I told him I was fine. I can act as your father now, and I’ll protect you and love you. I’ll take care of you. I’m responsible for you and you’re safe with me. And I hugged him, not physically, but I hugged him spiritually. And it was at that moment that I felt I had returned as one throughout my body.”

In my healing process, I found that when triggered, pausing and breathing helped me realize that in the present, I was no longer that vulnerable child. And in that instant of clarity I understood that in fact I, like Tony, can now act as the safe adult who can nurture and protect that frightened internal child whose vulnerability is being reactivated. And with that new understanding, I can make myself more available to the joy of giving to others as well.

Happy Holidays!

By Peter Pollard

peter1Peter Pollard is the Professional Relations & Communications Director for 1in6, Inc. Peter previously worked for 15 years as a state, child-protection social worker and was the Public Education director at Stop It Now! Since 2003, he has served as the Western Massachusetts coordinator for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and also does work for a Certified Batterers Intervention Program. See Peter’s portrait in The Bristlecone Project exhibit.