Coping With the Holidays

Why the so-called “happiest time of the year” often is not – and what you can do to make it better.

By Mary Tendall and Jan Fishler
PTSD Christmas holidays

An informal survey of wives of some of the veterans we know revealed that the holiday season can be a “difficult” time. As Maggie,* a 50-year-old wife explains, “It’s a lot of work! I end up doing it all, and my husband doesn’t seem to notice. If the weather’s bad, he sits in front of the TV all day, and if it’s not too cold out, he layers up and goes out in the shop. I might as well be married to a bear for all I see of him between fall and spring.”

In spite of her husband’s holiday depression, Sandie refuses to back off from the holiday revelries.

In spite of her husband’s holiday depression, Sandie, a wife in her late 50s, refuses to back off from the holiday revelries. She told us, “Because Bill gets so depressed, I don’t expect him to do a thing during the holidays, so I do it all – trim the tree, buy and wrap all of the presents, make the meal, and clean up. By mid-January he’s himself again, and always thankful that he had a chance to see the kids.”

Having to “do it all” was a mantra chanted by many of the wives. Even the men who usually contribute to the day-to-day activities around the house seem to emotionally disintegrate with the first hint of the holiday season.

Grumpy spouse

Coping with a grumpy spouse is a challenge that often requires compassion and creativity. As Eve says, “If I even mention having Thanksgiving dinner here, Jack starts complaining and threatens to lock himself in the den. A few years ago we started going out for holiday dinners, and that seems to work.”

Joanne tells us that last October her husband moved into their motor home so that he wouldn’t have to watch any of those “damn sappy holiday specials on TV.”

Audrey, a 63-year-old grandmother of seven, is used to “going it alone” during the holidays. She got tired of complaining about Fred’s mood, so a few years ago, she started visiting the kids and grandkids without him. “I don’t know why Fred hates holidays so much, but he’s a lot happier at home, and I’m a lot happier being with family.”

A time of joy?

The holiday season, particularly from November through January, is traditionally a time of expected joy, large family gatherings, parties, and crowded shopping. The media, stores, and homes are flooded with symbolic reminders of coming celebrations. Unfortunately, the sights and sounds of the season are the very elements that create triggers in most combat veterans. The result is increased social isolation, irritability, nightmares, and depression – behaviors that are the antithesis of good tidings and cheer.

The sights and sounds of the season are the very elements that create triggers in most combat veterans.

In contrast, spouses and family members have difficulty understanding why these symptoms continue for so many years, and many are astonished to learn that they could be linked to events that happened 30 or 40 years ago. When neither side understands the underlying issues, confusion reigns and feelings get hurt. For example, to avoid going out, a veteran might instigate an argument. The announcement, “I hate to shop,” will be the message for others to take care of all arrangements. A headache or other complaint will be the malady that enables the veteran to stay home and avoid social gatherings.

Avoidance behavior

Why all of this avoidance behavior? As explained in previous articles, the traumatized brain stem retains a memory in primitive form, which triggers easily and has no reference to linear time. As a result, it can be sparked by sensory input that exists in the current time and place. For instance, the traumatized reaction in the brain says to avoid crowds. That translates into avoidance and isolation. Vigilance and emotional numbness make it nearly impossible to experience the joy and laughter of family and social gatherings. There is a desire to “just get through it” with no major family wreckage. In spite of a deep longing to connect, the message (reaction) to avoid and isolate dominates, since it is lodged in the survival part of the brain.

The traumatized brain stem retains a memory in primitive form, which triggers easily and has no reference to linear time.

For many veterans, holidays are also reminders, either conscious or unconscious, of any traumatic event that occurred during combat. If trauma occurred around the Christmas or Hanukkah season (like Tet, for instance), the anniversary of that event can cause old feelings to resurface. Nearly every soldier earmarked the day when it was a special holiday back home. It is for this reason that the very season itself can trigger unpleasant body memories that may manifest in nightmares and emotional reactivity.

It is vitally important for combat veterans and their families to be aware of this sensitive time. Fortunately there are many steps that can be taken to help veterans and family members cope with the holidays and decrease the symptomatic behavior.

One of the most important things a veteran can do is learn to identify emotions and express them to a spouse or to loved ones. When a husband says, “I’m feeling anxious today, and I need to stay home and calm myself,” his wife is likely to respond with compassion. Some other phrases that have gone a long way to promote understanding are: “I don’t feel like socializing much. Let’s take two cars and I’ll leave early.” Or, “Would you be willing to spend a quiet holiday this year?”

Or, “I’d like to have a quiet day alone away from company. Will you work with me to make that happen?” Or, “I’m feeling on edge. Would you pick out a movie with me for the two of us to watch?” Keep in mind that it’s best to avoid television programs or movies that involve conflict. For this reason, most comedies are a safe bet.

Veterans can help themselves

Veterans can also help themselves by learning to identify what they need to do to take care of themselves – without causing family disruption. In keeping with the spirit of the holiday season, one veteran we know developed a list of activities he was willing to do with his family. As a result, a compromise was reached, and now every Christmas afternoon is spent outside – hiking, fishing, or boating together.

Of course, there are veterans who live alone and relish being by themselves for the holidays, but others often welcome company at this time. If you prefer companionship, consider reaching out to friends or organizations – a local church or VFW, for instance – for “safe” holiday socialization. Another option is to ask other veterans who live alone if they would like to join you, even if it’s just to have a cup of coffee or watch TV.

While it is easy to get frustrated with antisocial or irritable behavior, there are many things family members can do to help veterans make it through this difficult time. Just knowing that reactivity is likely to increase at this time – for no apparent reason – can help family members deflect it. In other words, this is not the time to discuss controversial topics or make important decisions.

To avoid disappointment and last-minute cancellations, it’s a good idea to agree on a plan. Taking separate cars if necessary, or limiting the time spent at a holiday event, can create a workable compromise. By understanding that the increase in emotional reactivity is likely due to the past, most hurt feelings can be avoided by not taking words and deeds personally – even if they are directed at you. (We know this is a real challenge.)

Keep stimulation to a minimum

Keeping stimulation in the home to a minimum can also be extremely helpful. If you must have company, make an effort to have small gatherings of short duration. Finally, acknowledge this difficult time and offer verbal and nonverbal support. Most important, remember that the key to having an enjoyable holiday is to forget what the season is supposed to be like, and create experiences that work for you and your family.

Of course, if all else fails, you might try hanging mistletoe in unexpected places.

*Names and some situations in this article have been changed. Some photos may include models who have no real-life relationship to the story or any PTSD issues.


Mary TendallMary Tendall, MA LMFT, has worked for over 20 years with combat veterans and their families, as a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in combat-related PTSD. She has consulted for the Gulf War Resource Center, National Public Radio, and Newsweek. She continues to work with combat veterans and their families, and is affiliated with several national non-profits whose goal is to help veterans, such as VietNow, Soldier’s Heart, Train Down, and America’s Heroes First. She can be reached by e-mail at


Jan FishlerJan Fishler is an author, writing coach, and creator/presenter of a series of writing workshops. Her memoir, Searching for Jane, Finding Myself, is available on Amazon. You can learn more about her at She is married to a Vietnam veteran.