For a child growing up in the home of an alcoholic, any holiday season is fraught with painful memories of years gone by, when the season was anything but joyous.
Even as an adult, living away from the situation, the alcoholic can still have a strong hold on how one perceives the holidays. For many years, I was unaware that just turning the calendar to “December” was enough of a trigger to cause my body to go through 1400 chemical reactions.
These reactions produce a host of side-effects which can leave you feeling anxious, worn out and unable to enjoy life. Their purpose is to prepare the body for flight or fight. Untransformed, they can impact your memory, decision-making and problem-solving skills. They are not to be taken lightly. Cortisol, “the stress hormone”, and one of the 1400 hormones that is secreted during times of stress, is connected to a variety of serious illnesses , many of which do not show up for decades.
Merry-making is ramped up during this season of peace and joy, which makes it difficult for the alcoholic to avoid the drinks scene. Despite vowing to abstain or limit the alcohol intake, there is extreme pressure to consume. “Aww, c'mon, one drink won't hurt.” “It's the holidays. Live a little!” For someone who is addicted, it doesn't take much encouragement before they're raising a glass or the bottle.
This type of atmosphere is tough on everyone. It creates a state of hyper-vigilance or acute awareness, where one is always alert, wondering when the next big explosion will take place. One can cycle through a myriad of emotions:
- Disappointment - “Not again.”
- Hope - “This year it will be different.”
- Anger - “Why can't this stop!”
- Blame - “If only I were prettier/smarter/better/more lovable....”
In an alcoholic home there is repeated exposure to fear-producing events, thus causing a strong association to things that remind you of that time. As you go through life, the amygdala continues to look for matches and when it finds something that is close enough, will prepare your body for the stress response – flight or fight. The trigger is often imperceptible – it could be the sound of someone's voice, ice in a glass, a certain expression on someone's face or the sight of a particular decoration. It could simply be the turn of a calendar page.
Unless you are aware that you are reacting to a trigger, you can experience a wide range of less-than-seasonal feelings which can include:
I know that the changing of the calendar no longer means "danger". I also know that the Christmas gatherings I now attend do not end in fights, nor does anyone end up in tears. I do not have to scan the faces of my loved ones to see what kind of mood they're in and how I should react in light of that mood.
This has been a process of learning and growing and one that I continue to use on a daily basis. It also helps to know that I can have an effect on my “internal pharmacy” by choosing my thoughts and emotions. When I choose to activate positive emotions, I know that I am changing my heart rhythms – the smoother the heart rhythms the better I feel. The better I feel, the better I do. When our mood changes for the better, all the little things that bothered us fall away and we live our lives in a way that is resourceful for us. We make wiser decisions and we are in a better position to share the gift that is ourself with others.
In an old pattern of thinking and feeling? Consider the fact that you've noticed what are you are doing and that you are looking to make some changes by replacing your old behaviours with new ones. That's a big step in itself and one that is worth appreciating and celebrating. Be patient and stick with it, the rewards are well worth the effort.
If you're interested in developing some emotional management skills, please send me an email.
Is there instance in your life where, now that you look back upon it, unbeknowst to you, the stress response was triggered?
Image courtesy of Carlos Aguiar.