Holiday Trauma Triggers: Art Activities for Healing
By Erica Curtis LMFT, ATR-BC
Holiday traditions. Smells and tastes. Sights and sounds. Familiar sensory input paves a superhighway to the past, ushering in a host of memories and associated emotions – whether joyous, taxing, or dreadful. For those who have experienced loss, illness, conflict, abuse, or other trauma, typical holiday stress associated with shopping and too many commitments would be a welcome relief.
Even if the winter holidays do not mark a particular anniversary, reminders of distressing times still abound. We may be expected to socialize with people who have hurt us. We may become acutely aware that someone is missing from our life. There are cues all around us to be joyous, when we are not. This alone may amplify anxiety, loneliness, or sadness. Thankfully, there is something we can do.
Making art can transform the way we think and feel about the past while creating new, more positive associations to the present. By putting a creative spin on holiday objects, decorating, and gift giving, we not only decrease holiday-related trauma triggers but may also experience moments of inspiration, renewal, or calm. It is through moments like these that we can begin to heal.
Here are a few ideas to try for yourself or to do with a loved one this holiday season:
Transform the past by transforming an object. Select an object that represents a difficult time or evokes challenging feelings. Write a wish for health, happiness, or healing on a small piece of paper. Next, gather simple materials (e.g. string, yarn, ribbons, colored paper, wrapping paper, rubber bands, glue, tape). Begin to wrap the object with materials of your choosing. Add your healing wish by wrapping string, yarn, or paper around it and the object; by punching a hole in your paper and threading string through it; or by affixing it to the outside with glue or tape. Feel free to change, embellish or add to the object in any way. When you are finished, look at your transformed object. What new feelings or thoughts does it evoke?
Create decorations of hope and resiliency. When it feels like there’s nothing much to rejoice about, it can be difficult to decorate for the holiday season. This year, create decorations of hope and resiliency by adorning a small tree, a mantel, or other space in your home with well wishes for yourself, someone you know, or even for the world. Cut decorative paper into shapes such as leaves, circles, hearts, or another shape. Write a single wish on each. For example: may I (you, we, everyone) be happy; may I feel moments of ease; may I be filled with kindness; may I be safe. Punch a hole and add string or hooks (paperclips work) to hang wishes on a tree or a branch that you place in a vase; hang a string on the wall and attach your decorations with clothes pins; or intermingle them with traditional decorations. Alternatively, draw small symbols of your wishes on rocks that you place in a dish or at the base of a plant.
Gift yourself something you REALLY need. Forget the new scarves and ties this year. Ask yourself “What do I REALLY need?” Start by identifying a feeling that gets in your way. Next, imagine that feeling is a close acquaintance with whom you can talk. Ask, “What do you REALLY need this year?” Listen for the answer. It might be that you need forgiveness, acceptance, or compassion. Gather markers or colored pencils and magazines, scissors, and glue. Find a small box. Create a “gift” of forgiveness, acceptance, compassion (or other) by decorating the inside of the box. Draw or cut out magazine pictures and words. Add colors, lines, and shapes that express the sentiment you are gifting yourself. Add small objects, gems, painted rocks, or other natural objects if you’d like. Decorate the outside or leave it plain. Wrap your gift or simply tie a ribbon around it.
Wishing you a healthy, healing holiday.
Erica Curtis LMFT, ATR-BC is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Board Certified Art Therapist with a private practice in San Juan Capistrano, CA. She is a co-creator and instructor for UCLArts and Healing’s Social Emotional Arts (SEA) certificate program and the Medical SEA program. Erica has appeared as an expert in over fifty media outlets, lectures regularly at local universities, serves as the admissions consultant for LMU’s department of Marital and Family Therapy with a specialization in art therapy, and is an expert consultant for the Board of Behavioral Sciences. Erica’s book, The Innovative Parent: Using Art to Raise Connected, Happy, and Successful Kids is coming out soon.