The Sinister Role of Past Trauma
You need not be the victim of a shooting or a tsunami survivor to have trauma. It comes in many shapes and sizes. Trauma finds roots in violent, easily pinpointed events like military combat, natural disasters, assault and rape. It can also be quiet and elusive, stemming from experiences such as neglect, rejection, prejudice and discrimination, shaming situations and early parent-child attachment styles that are overly enmeshed or insecure. Some forms of trauma can have long-lasting, life-impairing, sometimes paralyzing aftermaths. Traumatized minds don’t always distinguish between real or perceived threats. The same primal fight, flight or freeze responses can be triggered in people with trauma from all kinds of experiences.
What seems like child’s play to some can send those who’ve experienced real-life horrors back to their darkest places. Some common Halloween traditions that may have potential to reactivate physical and emotional distress associated with past trauma include the following:
Scary or Violent Movies
Research suggests that viewing violent events can trigger past trauma and even cause a person to develop PTSD symptoms with repeated viewings. The Halloween season usually brings forth a slew of scary, violent movies to commemorate the occasion, with round-the-clock previews to boot. It’s also difficult to even flip through television channels without coming across a number of the classic terrors, including those timeless movies that showcase psychologically traumatic relationships and abuse such as “Carrie,” “The Shining” and “Psycho.” Escaping troubling entertainment options can be a real challenge during the “season of scary.”
Both child and adult Halloween costumes have become pretty elaborate over the years. It takes just the right — or wrong — Halloween regalia to bring up scenes from a traumatized person’s past. Fake scars, stitches, weapons and wounds are the norm for many customary costumes, whisking people suffering from PTSD back to war scenes, crime scenes and physical abuse. Costumes need not even be of the macabre variety to contain triggers. Morbid costumes or getups that remind someone of a traumatic event, deceased loved one or person from their past can pull the trauma strings.
A popular way for thrill-seekers to get the adrenaline flowing is by attending haunted houses, a staple in Halloween festivities. These scream scenes, while fun for some, can be a real-life house of horrors for certain trauma survivors. Stocked full of visual and auditory trauma triggers with gore, ghosts and goblins popping out around every corner, this sensory overload can send a trauma survivor’s startle response into overdrive. An overactive startle response is a common symptom of PTSD that stems from a heightened state of hypervigilance in people with trauma. Research showsthat startle responses in people with PTSD are more easily activated, last longer and are tied to intrusive traumatic memories.
Decorations and Special Effects
These days, stores seem to pull out the Halloween decorations just as soon as July 4th is a wrap. It’s also a tradition in many neighborhoods to don dwellings in festive seasonal décor like fake spider webs, coffins, skeletons, severed limbs, crime scene tape, fog machines, tombstones and strobe lights, sometimes accompanied by creepy music and haunting sound effects. While fun and games for trick-or-treaters, foreboding features like these can cause suffering in trauma survivors who, as noted above, may respond to these troublesome visual and auditory stimuli as if they face a real danger.
Five Ways to Navigate Halloween Triggers
Dr. Elena Cherepanov is a clinical psychologist and mental health counselor, senior instructor at Cambridge College and a certified trauma specialist (ATSS) who has extensive experience in mass and interpersonal violence and global trauma. Dr. Cherepanov says that while the ancient meaning of Halloween tradition is overcoming the fear of death, in her work the people she sees who are particularly vulnerable to Halloween triggers include those who have lost a loved one or have witnessed the violent death of others, who’ve survived violence in their past, or have been a part of ritualistic torture as part of a cult. She offers advice for trauma survivors struggling with the Halloween season.
- Mobilize Your Support System — Limit alone time and connect with friends and family. Spend time doing fun activities with your support system and enlist their help during situations that might be especially triggering. For example, if seeing trick-or-treaters’ costumes is difficult, visit a friend who doesn’t partake in Halloween activities or doesn’t get trick or treaters. If you feel bad leaving the neighborhood children without sweets, you can leave candies on your doorstep. In this case, kids won’t bother you.
- Avoid or Replace Trigger Stimuli — If scary movies bother you, watch a comedy or mystery. Limit exposure to news that may include violence or Halloween coverage. Instead, attend a play, exercise or participate in a hobby you enjoy. Staying busy helps keep the mind off of painful reminders.
- Engage in Mindfulness Practices — While you can’t avoid street and store decorations and “all things Halloween,” you can engage in activities that decrease stress and promote emotional well-being such as mindfulness. In fact, recent research suggests that mindfulness practices can actually change brain connections in people with PTSD, increasing their ability to stop troubling, trauma-invoking thought cycles.
- Don’t Abuse Drugs and Alcohol — Dr. Cherepanov advises trauma survivors against using substances to self-medicate their way through Halloween season. Drugs and alcohol are temporary coping mechanisms that ultimately backfire.
- Seek Professional Mental Health Support — Working with a trained clinician can help you become clear on your hot-button situations and develop healthy strategies for addressing them. A mental health professional can also help you process past trauma in a safe, supportive environment.
“The Halloween culture does not take into consideration people who are vulnerable because of trauma and other mental health issues,” says Dr. Cherepanov. “A person cannot really control triggers, but they can control their own environment and take care of themselves.”