How to Handle Religious Triggers this Christmas

holidays religious harm religious trauma self care Dec 08, 2022

You've been doing great on your faith deconstruction or faith transition journey, proud of the progress you've made. You're making big strides!  And then December rolls around and all of the religious symbolism pops up through nativity scenes, endless religious Christmas music, family asking you to church services or why you aren't going, and all memories of the past flood in and it's like you've started all over again. 

You should be further along, right? This shouldn't affect you like this. Right? RIGHT?!

Before you start beating yourself up, we want you to know that is a very NORMAL thing to experience. Because leaving high demand religion is not linear in its healing, it's to be expected that times where religious symbolism is highly concentrated that it can throw you off your tracks, making you feel like you're back to day 1 of deconstruction. Or it can even set you into a tailspin of heightened emotions more so that you have been feeling lately. This can be a particularly unsettling experience called being triggered.

What Does It Mean to be Triggered?

Triggers are the things (people, places, situations, events, and topics) that spark intense negative emotions around your religious past and the harm that you endured. They show up for those who have left high demand religion in more intense ways during the holiday season because there is a dense experience of:

  • The religious symbolism everywhere
  • Feeling left out in the events/traditions you once took part in
  • Feeling like a black sheep among your still-believing family 

The experience of triggers can manifest themself as physical reactions (like nausea, shaking, rapid heart rate, chest pain or even the need to run or hide); to more intense experiences of emotions like sadness, anxiety, or anger. What used to be a joyful season for you now turns into a reminder of everything you have lost, what makes you most angry about your indoctrination, or even the fact that you feel like you belong nowhere now.

When Should You Expect To Be Triggered? 

Not everyone gets triggered this time of year but for those who are currently experiencing it, we find there are 4 main types of triggers:

  • People: Family/parents, your children/partner who still believe, old church friends, etc.
  • Situations/Events: Hearing religious songs played on repeat on the radio/in stores, nativity scenes, Christmas plays/church services, being the only one in your family that no longer believes, having to be "secretive" about your new beliefs and feeling like you're doing something wrong, prayer or religious rituals at the dinner table/family gatherings, Christmas cards, participating in religious traditions because you haven't told anyone yet, parties, etc.
  • Places: Family dinners/celebrations, going to church services, in your home
  • Topics: Phrases your family/parents say this time of year, being invited to Christmas Eve service, being asked what you believe now, being told trite response as to why you don''t believe (you just read the wrong version of the Bible, just pray more, "It's just a phase"), any arguing/trying to convince you to change your mind, political/religious thoughts that radically go against your new values.

What Can You Do About Being Triggered?

You can't always control your triggers but at least you can have a better understanding of what is happening (no, you're not being "dramatic or crazy"), and do what you can that IS within your own control. The following are ways you can proactively empower yourself around these triggers at Christmas: 

1. Increase your self awareness. First, know that this is common thing to feel for those of us who have left high-demand religion. Leaving your faith is a very disorienting experience and when you are hit with back-to-back weeks filled with family and celebrations deeply centered around old beliefs, it is to be expected to have strong reactions in these moments. Start noticing your own personal triggers and what are the main people, places, situations/events, and topics that really tend to hook you around this time of year.

2. Notice what emotions it stirs up in you. Is it:

  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Guilt/Shame
  • Grief/Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Resentment

Get to know what is uniquely happening to you in this moments. Take note on how it feels in your body and what thoughts tend to arise when these triggers occur. The more you understand, the easier it can be to remind yourself that you're being triggered by your religious past, how to show up for yourself in kinder ways, and help you untangle from some of these big emotions. You can also use these FIVE questions to help you navigate those big emotions

3. Make a list of things you can do to care for yourself. This will look different for each person, but it's best to start with these THREE questions to ask yourself so that you are clear on what is important to you now and how you want to feel this season. Other examples of ways to care for yourself include:

  • Finding ways to express yourself
  • Having a support system
  • Finding moments of rest and joy
  • Creating a self care plan
  • Getting specialized support 

Remember that if you are experiencing a difficult time this Christmas, you might be getting triggered by the religious harm done to you (and that is normal and to be expected). Try to be more proactive during this season and take good care of yourself. Go slower, rest more, and make room for the new traditions that want to emerge. And remember, you got this!


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