Updated: Apr 30
This week’s article is on veterans coping with PTSD during the holidays. The winter holiday season is regarded by many as a wonderful time of the year. Consequently, for many veterans, this time of the year is often filled with non-celebratory memories from past experiences. Add PTSD to the mix – 11-20% of Veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF) have PTSD in a given year – this making the “season to be jolly” downright challenging. The holidays can be a painful reminder of past times when life seemed better. Large groups of family and friends are often part of the holiday festivities, but this and other things may be stressful for someone with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Groups of people and friends may tire a person out or make him, or her feel overwhelmed. People may feel pressure to join family activities when they’re not up for it or believe they must act happy when they’re not. People with PTSD may already find it challenging to get enough sleep or relax, and these added pressures can worsen those symptoms.
Veterans with PTSD may be susceptible to losses around the holiday. Veterans and military families, in particular, tend to remember at the holidays those who did not make it home from war. They may not know how to celebrate the holidays, knowing those fallen heroes are no longer present. There may also be recent losses: the death of a loved one, an emotional divorce, or separation from one’s children. All of these circumstances may cause someone to feel melancholy about memories of holidays past.
Family and friends might ask the Veteran questions about his or her life or about PTSD. The person with PTSD may not feel comfortable answering these questions, but they must keep in mind that their family may feel some of the same pressures and may only be asking because they have a genuine concern for their wellbeing.
The holiday gathering may also be one of the few times family or friends can physically see the person with PTSD, and they may feel it is more appropriate they ask such questions in person rather than over the phone or online because they may think that is too impersonal. In either case, the person with PTSD has the power and right not to answer any questions.
Responding to sensitive questions
Talking about PTSD can be a delicate topic, and it takes skill to discuss it with the veteran. Ground rules and boundaries must be established for it to be successful. Both people with and without PTSD can cope with holiday stress by following these tips:
Talk with your family about how you feel. Your family can help you. This does not mean you have to tell them everything, but let them know you’re feeling stressed.
Be honest about your stress level and let your friends and family know your plans ahead of time, especially if you are planning to take some time during the season to relax and de-stress by spending time away from home, work, or people that bring stress into your life.
Set limits. Don’t join activities for longer than you can handle. You can choose when you want to be a part of the group.
Take breaks. Go for walks, or set aside a place where you can be alone for a while. This can keep you from feeling overwhelmed.
Get plenty of rest. You may already have difficulty sleeping, but do your best to maintain your usual bedtime or wake-up. Naps should be taken sparingly, as they may further disrupt your nighttime sleeping patterns.
Keep up with exercise routines. If you usually do yoga, go jogging, lift weights, try to keep up those healthy routines. These activities are all healthy ways to relieve stress.
Fake it ‘til you make it. Sometimes people who are feeling depressed find that if they go through the motions, they just might catch themselves having fun. While the pain from the past hasn’t gone away, this is a chance to begin making new positive memories, one step at a time.
One of the best tips to remember when coping with holiday stress is not drinking too much alcohol. Many people have a few drinks, thinking it will relax them, but instead, alcohol causes many people to have less control over their emotions and behavior. As a result, your symptoms may be worse, or you may end up having problems with your family. For those who are in recovery from alcohol, the suggestion from family or friends to “have just one” can be a big challenge. Carrying a glass of ginger ale or cola with you can help sidestep those offers without you having to share your personal matters with everyone.
As always, the Veterans Crisis Line will be available throughout the winter holiday season, including Christmas and New Year’s. The Veterans Crisis Line connects Veterans in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring Department of Veterans Affairs responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text. Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Support for deaf and hard of hearing individuals is available.
Insert the number into your phone contacts because although you may not need to ever call them, you may find yourself in a case where you’re calling to help someone else.
Ways to Help a Veteran during the Holidays
There are many different ways to help veterans during the holidays. Here are some ideas and suggestions to make a veteran’s day and year better.
Adopt-a-Veteran – Programs such as the Elk Lodge’s program are targeted toward any veterans that are lonely or isolated. Veterans in VA hospitals, assisted care homes, community living centers, retirement homes, homeless and transitional shelters, and hospital domiciliary programs are all eligible.
Corporate Matching Gifts – Check to see if your employer matches your donation.
Check with your human resources, employee benefits office, or community relations office.
Request an Employee Matching Gift form.
Verify the veteran's charity you’d like to donate to is eligible.
Combined Federal Campaign – Pledges made by Federal civilian, postal and military donors during the campaign season (September 1st to December 15th) support eligible non-profit organizations that provide health and human service benefits throughout the world.
Planned Giving – Wills, Trusts, Charitable Gift Annuities
Organize a fundraiser (you can even do this online through Facebook)
Donate the Following
Airline/Hotel and Credit Card points/miles
Bonds or Stocks
Volunteer with Wreaths Across America. Each December, they coordinate wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, in locations nationwide, at sea, and abroad. If you’re unable to participate, you can donate to help buy wreaths.
Hopefully, this message has reached you in a positive and informative way. Please take care of yourselves and help our veterans out there who are in need.
Grogan, J. (2018). Helping Veterans Cope with PTSD during Holidays. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.blogs.va.gov/VAntage/54878/helping-veterans-cope-ptsd-holidays/
Grogan, J. (2018). VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System (VCB). U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.texasvalley.va.gov/features/Coping_with_PTSD_during_holidays.asp
MilitaryBenefits.Info (2020). How to Help Veterans During the Holidays. Retrieved from https://militarybenefits.info/how-to-help-veterans-during-the-holidays/
Image provided by Midjourney (April 2023). Retrieved from https://www.midjourney.com/home/?callbackUrl=%2Fapp%2F