The fall and winter holidays are meant to be a time of peace, joy, and loving connection with family members and loved ones—or so we are told… Yet many of us don’t experience that peace, joy, and connection. Instead, we find ourselves reliving past memories and emotional disturbances related to trauma that we experienced in our early days growing up in our families of origin.
Those who experience a traumatic event during developmental years sometimes develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) later in life. Trauma is an event that was so emotionally overwhelming or hurtful that our systems shut down at the time, not allowing us to process emotions in a healthy way. The event leaves an imprint in our bodies and minds that continues to bring forth triggers when we see the people, places, and things that are connected to traumatic memories. PTSD is a set of symptoms that tend to arise over and over again as a result of this unresolved emotional imprint.
Trauma and PTSD are not reserved only for those of us who were physically or sexually abused as children. Trauma is much broader than that. Feeling unloved, judged, rejected, or abandoned by a parent or loved one during child development can bring about PTSD-like symptoms that continue to resurface every year around the holidays.
One glance at a loved one’s face or even the sound of a voice can act as a catalyst that brings up feelings of anger, sadness, shame, or anxiety that have remained buried inside us for years. This can lead to a feeling of dread toward holiday events and family gatherings. Instead of longing to be in the presence of those who truly love us, we find ourselves ruminating on and rehashing these past thoughts and feelings. For some, the resurfacing of trauma can be quite debilitating, leading to isolation, depression, or an increase in addictive behaviors and other not-so-healthy coping mechanisms.
With mindfulness, we begin to truly face, feel, and resolve these past traumas as they resurface. We learn to allow and dissolve the thoughts, feelings, and sensations tied to our traumatic childhood. We start to live in the present moment, where life is always new and fresh.
When working with people on past trauma at the Kiloby Center for Recovery, our aim is to first help them see the full extent of the emotional disconnection from their loved ones. We invite them to compare within their consciousness how they experience a beloved pet to how they experience a father or a sister. When they visualize their dog “Jake,” for example, they may experience love, warmth, openness, and connection. Thoughts of their pets are not traumatic or painful (unless, of course, they are grieving the loss of a pet). This is because, unlike our relationships with other humans, we do not relate to our pets on the level of ego. We connect with our pets from our natural state of presence and unconditional love. When clients are then asked to visualize their family of origin, something else happens entirely! They may experience fear, sadness, shame, or anger. The corresponding mental images of their loved ones may appear sticky and solid, creating a sense of separation between them. This is the ego, through and through.
How do we learn to experience our loved ones with the same warmth, peace, love, and joy that we experience with our pets? The key is to unhook ourselves from the filter of the past as it relates to our loved ones. Essentially, we dismantle the ego and its negative storytelling. With mindfulness, we begin to truly face, feel, and resolve these past traumas as they resurface. We learn to allow and dissolve the thoughts, feelings, and sensations tied to our traumatic childhood. We start to live in the present moment, where life is always new and fresh. Then, when we see a loved one’s face or hear his or her voice, we connect to the joy, peace, and love we feel for them, instead of re-experiencing the emotional imprint that leaves us feeling disconnected.
Mindfulness takes skill. We can become easily overwhelmed by the resurfacing of traumatic memories and feelings while working with trauma using mindfulness. Many of us need the guiding presence of a mindfulness facilitator or teacher to help us through the process skillfully and thoroughly. But once we learn valuable skills, those skills are with us forever. We can use them whenever the painful filter of the past begins to resurface during holiday events and family gatherings. We become the masters of our own experience, able to experience the joy and peace that the holidays are truly about.
In addition to authoring books on mindfulness and awareness, Scott Kiloby is co-owner of the Kiloby Center for Recovery in Rancho Mirage, CA—the first addiction treatment center to focus primarily on mindfulness—and co-owner of the Natural Rest House, a detox and residential center in Palm Springs. He is also founder of a worldwide mindfulness training program called the Living Inquiries. For more info, visit KilobyCenter.com.
Scott recently appeared at the Science and Nonduality Conference in San Jose, CA (SAND17 US). To learn more about him and his work, check out his Q&A with Non-Duality Press here.