This week has been a bit of a rough one. On Saturday it was my husband’s birthday. On Monday it was my dad’s. This week it’s mine. You might think that that would make for a fun-packed few days. But the exact opposite has been true.
You see, for me, as for so many people who have experienced long-term trauma or sexual abuse, Birthdays, Thanksgiving, Anniversaries, Christmas and other family-based ‘significant dates’ can be extremely triggering.
They can bring up all sorts of memories and trauma responses (both conscious and unconscious) that can set us spinning into despair for days or weeks on end.
In this blog post I want to explore some of the emotions that can come up around birthdays and other significant dates, and discuss how to recognize when they are triggering you; how to pause and really feel what you’re feeling when you are triggered, and what steps you can take to find relief and move forwards in a way that best serves you.
Before we start, I’d like to invite you to take stock of which significant dates or ‘special days’ affect you. Are there certain dates or holidays that you dread as they approach? Take a moment to notice how you feel in the run-up to these days . Do you have certain rules you feel like you have to follow? Do you get overly tearful or angry or push people away? If it’s a birthday, do you throw yourself a big party or hide-away wishing for it to pass-by unnoticed? If it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas or another typically family-based holiday, how do you act during those days? Do you feel depressed, lonely or argumentative? If so, please know that you are not alone!
I’m going to share some of my history around birthdays and what happened with this year’s birthday, but as you read, remember that this can apply to any holiday, anniversary or other significant date in your life…
A history of sexual abuse can cause a love-hate relationship with birthdays (and other ‘special days’).
As a kid I both loved and hated birthdays. I looked forward to them as a day of cease-fire. No one yelled, no one got beaten, everyone was nice. It was as if someone had pressed pause on our regular life and we magically became a different family for the day.
There was some kind of unwritten code and we all tried so hard to make things perfect. Walking on eggshells to make sure nothing could possibly set my father off. Reality was suspended. Mum would bake a cake. She was good at that. And, although the budget was pretty limited, she would buy us lots of little gifts and wrap each one individually in her attempt to make us feel special.
But throughout my birthday, despite, or perhaps because of, everyone’s overt niceness, I could never quite shake the fearful, uneasy feeling gnawing at me. A sinking feeling of dread that the day would soon be over; the magical world would shatter and everyone would be back to normal.
Maybe this explains why I never wanted to go to bed on my birthday. I always wanted to suck every last moment out of the day. To hold on to the fantasy that I could have a loving and safe home. The annual birthday-break from physical, emotional and sexual abuse, made it increasingly difficult to return to reality.
Fall is always tough for me…
Flash forward to my life today and although I now live in a safe and loving home with my husband and 3 kids, I still find Fall to be an extremely challenging season. The clocks go back, the evenings are drawing in, it’s chillier in the mornings and at night and this triggers in me a need to take stock.
I start to ponder how far I’ve come this year. Have I done enough? Am I where I thought I’d be? Did I achieve my goals? This critical voice invariably hijacks me for a while, berating me for a slew of perceived failures and inadequacies.
Mostly I’m able to recognize the pattern, stop and realize that this voice is not me; that I am exactly where I need to be. But this year, a few details collided causing me to tail-spin into a pretty dark place, leaving me completely unable to recognize that I’d been triggered.
My manic reaction was really my trauma response!
It all started last Saturday with a seemingly innocent decision to throw a joint birthday party for my husband and I. In his mind this would be easy and convenient. A no-hassle way to celebrate, killing two birds with one stone. My reaction however, was completely the opposite.
I began to panic and catastrophize. ‘I don’t want to throw a party. There’s too much to do. No one will come. Who would want to celebrate me anyway? I’ll have to bake. There’s not enough time’ and on and on my mind raced. My husband did his best to reassure me that everything would be fine. All I needed to do, he said, was to make a plan and take it one step at a time.
It’s supposed to be fun after all…Oh and could I please bake him a cake? It was a seemingly innocent question. After all, I’ve baked lots of cakes in the past and have always loved baking. But my initial reaction was… “Wait… What?!”
As a recovering people pleaser and party-planning nut, the idea of baking my husband a birthday cake tipped me over the edge and sent me into a party-planning frenzy that I now see had absolutely nothing to do with the party and everything to do with my childhood trauma.
I was afraid of breaking all the rules
You see, although I consciously knew that nothing bad would happen if I said no to a party and I knew that it would all be ok if I bought a cake from the local store, unconsciously I was afraid that I’d be breaking the unspoken code of perfect birthdays drilled into me since birth.
I felt a growing sense of panic and dread that if the day was anything short of perfect, something terrible would happen and that I would somehow destroy my one chance to stock up on ‘love’ for the year! And so, I said yes to it all. Yes to the party, yes to 75 guests. Yes to a homemade 2 tiered cake. Yes to balloons and every other little thing. I said yes, but my body had other ideas!
The body really does keep the score!
We had agreed to the party on the Saturday. A day later, I awoke with terrible back pain. I could not bend or twist from side to side.
I called my chiropractor and managed to get an appointment plus two more later in the week. My chiropractor asked me what I had done to injure my back. Nothing! Had I had a fall? Or a collision? No! Had I hyper-extended it somehow? No!
By the third appointment he said everything was properly aligned with my spine and ribs. There was no physical reason that he could find to explain the pain that I was experiencing. Then he asked a question that made me stop dead in my tracks! ‘Are you usually slow to heal?’
I suddenly realized that in my panic, I had forgotten to ask myself what was really going on underneath the pain. What emotions were under the sensations in my body. I know, I know, I do this work with clients everyday, but sometimes, when it comes to our own journey and when we’re very triggered, we can forget even the basics of how to heal!
You see, part of my work with Tapping and SE, is explaining to people that, when it comes to physical pain, (and especially chronic pain) it is all too often our unconscious negative emotions and past traumatic experiences that create and keep the pain locked in place.
Chronic pain is frequently created by the constriction in our bodies due to stress, anxiety and and fear combined with the hyper-sensitivity of the muscles, nerves and fascia. Healing is either prevented from happening or is radically slowed because when we are under emotional stress, the body is in the stress response (sympathetic nervous system) rather than the healing response (parasympathic nervous system).
With my situation, I had forgotten to ask myself the very question that I so often ask my clients… ‘what emotion is under the pain?!’ And it wasn’t until my chiropractor asked me if I was usually ‘slow to heal’ that I remembered to ask myself this question.
I was so angry with my body!
Rather than thinking about the emotions, I had only been focusing on the mechanics of my body. I was hating my body and feeling like it was betraying me. I was furious at my back for what I perceived to be its stubborn resistance and lack of co-operation with my plans to get things done. I had a time-line and a plan for a party and I refused to let my back stop me executing that plan perfectly!
But I had been blocking out all my feelings. I was dissociating. Numb. Running on auto-pilot. All week long I’d been on a frantic hamster wheel to go faster.
If I could just do more, do enough, get it all done, then the party would go well. Then no one would get hurt and I’d finally be filled up with the love and acceptance that I had craved as a child. Of course, this had all been happening on an unconscious level. But thanks to my chiropractor, it was now very much in my conscious awareness. I suddenly realized that it was not about this party! It was about all the years and birthdays that had preceded this one as a child. The residual panic, dread, fear, hopes, dreams and crushing disappointments.
No matter how much my mother did on that one day each year to make the day ‘special’ it was never enough to counter-balance or compensate for the devastating abuse I experienced the other 364 days of the year. I longed to feel safe and loved. As a child, I hoped and prayed that if I was just good enough, then I could one day do enough to prove I deserved care, attention, affection and love.
So now that I knew I’d been triggered and I was having a trauma response – what could I do about it?
With my chiropractor’s question, I saw that I was in the middle of a trauma response. And so I stopped. I sat in my car at 8am on the morning of my husband’s birthday and our party and I cried. Actually I ugly cried. I sobbed and sobbed. Filled with grief for all the years I hadn’t cried or felt the pain wrapped up in a big birthday bow. It’s not that I had been slow to heal, it’s that I had not been allowing my self the space and time to feel the pain of my emotions. In resenting and blaming my body and my back, I had failed to see the tremendous wisdom in my body’s sensations.
I had thought my body was betraying me. But now I see that my body was actually speaking up for me. Saying all the words that I couldn’t say. Communicating how desperately sad and alone I have always felt on birthdays. And how much grieving I had to do for all the days and years of my childhood lost to fear and terror. My back was trying valiantly to put the brakes on my manic cycle in an attempt to get me to slow down and stop long enough to actually feel.
And so I made a different choice. Instead of continuing to push through, I sat and sobbed. I allowed all the feelings to finally come crashing in. Without censoring or blocking them now. I allowed myself to feel and to grieve. This is what I’d been trying to resist and avoid for so many years.
I’m not sure why, but even now, after all my years on this healing journey, I still sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that feeling my emotions (especially grief) is going to be unbearable. That the emotion will consume me. That I’ll fall into a chasm of grief and never climb back out. Can you relate to that? Do you ever feel like you can’t possibly allow yourself to feel because you believe you’ll never be able to pick yourself back up?
In reality, the exact opposite is true. It’s only in allowing ourselves to go into the darkness; in allowing ourselves to feel, and ugly cry, and then release the pain, that we give ourselves the freedom to put ourselves back together and heal at the deepest level.
When we can truly sit with our painful emotions we make space and time for true healing to happen.
When I stopped distracting myself with the business of the party; when I stopped dissociating and resisting my emotions, and finally let my tears flow, yes it was intense. Yes it felt god-awful in the moment.
But after a while my sobs became less overwhelming. I began to breathe deeper. I began to Tap and allowed myself to think of my father (something I rarely do) and to grieve him. This is challenging and complex for me, because he is still living and yet we are estranged. But this was the grief and the mourning at the core of my back pain. I allowed myself to connect with my inner child and to let her mourn the daddy she wishes she could and should have had. The daddy who would have played with her and comforted her and kept her safe.
So what now?
After what felt like ages, when I was all cried-out, I drove home feeling much lighter. My back felt more at ease. I could turn and twist with a greater range of motion. I talked to my body – to my back and made a promise…
Yes I had committed to this party, that I couldn’t change. But, what I could change was my approach to it. I promised to take it more slowly. More deliberately. Less manically! I chose to enjoy watching the kids play soccer in the rain during the party (without thinking that I had caused the rain!). I had fun chatting with friends without debilitating fear of judgement. I allowed the residual sadness in my belly to be there. I let go of the idea that I had to make everything perfect in order for me to be safe.
Maybe it’s ok for birthdays to not be perfect. Maybe it’s ok to not feel ecstatic and to even feel miserable. Maybe there don’t have to be any rules at all and I can just be however I am. I’m not sure what this next year will bring or how I’ll feel when my birthday inevitably rolls around again, but I do know that I’m grateful to my body and to my back for showing me that birthdays don’t have to suck quite so much – if we can just feel!
Steps you can take if you get triggered by Birthdays, Thanksgiving, Anniversaries, Christmas or any other significant date…
As you read the above, I hope that you were able to reflect on how you’ve been triggered in your own life around specific dates and holidays. And I also want to give you some practical steps that you can follow to help you if and when you do feel triggered.
Step 1 – Get clear on how you really feel:
Begin by writing down how you really feel about your upcoming birthday, holiday, anniversary or other significant date. Just write whatever comes to mind without censoring the information.
For example: ‘I hate birthdays. No one remembers. I never get a gift. My best friend had a bad car accident on my birthday when I was 11. My siblings always got more toys than me. My mother threw me a party when I was 6 and no one came. My husband filed for divorce on Christmas Eve. I don’t like getting older. My body aches more. I’m getting fatter. I don’t make as much money as I thought I’d make by now’. Whatever you truly feel is the right thing to write here.
Step 2 – What do you notice in your body when you write this?
This is a crucial step and one that so often gets missed. For me, my back was where I was holding a great deal of emotion about birthdays. Take a moment to tune in to your own body now. When you think about birthday or other ‘special occasion’, what do you notice happening inside? Do you feel tension in your shoulders? Or a knot in your stomach? How deeply are you able to breathe? Whatever you notice can be combined with Step 1 to help you with some somatically centered Tapping in Step 3.
Step 3 – Use your writing combined with how your body feels to create your Tapping Script:
Now that you’ve written down how you truly feel about birthdays (or other ‘special occasion’) and you get a sense of how those feelings are showing up in your body, go ahead and rate on a scale of 0-10 what intensity you’re feeling right now with 0 being the least and 10 being the most. Maybe you feel sad about Christmas at a level 9 and you feel that sadness in your heart. Or perhaps you feel a sharp stabbing pain in your left knee at a level 7 whenever you think of Uncle Joe coming for Thanksgiving each year. Whatever the occasion, once you have your number, we can begin Tapping. Remember, although I am giving a general Tapping script here, please think about what is significant and true for you right now. As we Tap, think about the date or occasion that is triggering for you. Feel into the discomfort or other sensation or emotion present in your body as you think about this date and notice how things shift for you as we Tap.
You might feel good doing this Tapping Process by yourself, or you might feel overwhelmed and like you need some support. If this is the case, please know that it’s a good idea to reach out to a coach or therapist as you process big emotions. If you relate to my story or have experienced childhood trauma or sexual abuse, you can always contact me for one-on-one coaching and guidance. I’m here for you!