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Survivors and the Holidays

Despite the unseasonably warm weather, the holidays are fast approaching.  Many positive emotions and memories accompany these upcoming weeks as family and friends will be reunited, delicious food will be prepared, and kind words, stories, and even gifts will be exchanged.  The next seven weeks, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, is full of excitement and pressure as people plan for holiday travel and brace themselves for long lines at the airports, in the stores, and on the roads. However, the stress of cooking, shopping, traveling, and everything else seems to melt away as people are able to come together after potentially not seeing each other since last holiday season.

While many people often look forward to the holidays every year and take the impending stress as a small cost for being with loved ones, I also know that many do not look forward to the holidays and in fact dread their upcoming arrival.  The holidays can be an extremely stressful and difficult time for many survivors of sexual assault and rape.  In addition to all the previously mentioned stressors of the holidays, they can face many more barriers and anxieties while trying to get through the upcoming holiday heavy weeks. 

How might a survivor see and experience the holidays differently?

  1. A survivor may have never told family members about an assault or act of incest that happened between them and a family member or family friend.  Alternatively, a survivor’s family may not have believed them or decided it was best to ‘sweep it under the rug’ and not address it.  The survivor is therefore left each holiday with a horrible choice: return home and celebrate the holidays with the perpetrator and people who either don’t know or were hostile towards the report or to stay away and miss being with their family.
  2. A survivor may have told family members about the assault and been positively supported.  However, they are constantly reminded of the perpetrator each time they return home because of pictures, stories, or people.
  3. Work colleagues and acquaintances frequently bring up the holidays as an easy conversation topic.  A survivor may not feel comfortable talking about why they are not going home or anywhere else for the holidays nor might they be comfortable lying about their plans.  Therefore, they could face a numerous questions about their choices with no real way to answer them.  Considering the number of acquaintances people interact with, this conversation can happen multiple times per day.
  4. Alcohol is frequently used at holiday events: corporate parties, family gatherings, and celebrations with friends.  If the assault involved alcohol, then the survivor may be stressed about being involved in so many events where drinking is taking place with people that the survivor may or may not know very well.  The survivor may feel that they lose control of a lot of factors when alcohol is brought into the environment.
  5. Airport security screenings are becoming increasingly invasive.  The new x-ray machine can cause fear that guards are able to see them naked.  Alternatively, the survivor can choose to be screened by a guard but that involves being touched, which could be even more triggering or traumatizing for the survivor.
  6. Media, stores, and consumer areas are inundated with ‘happy people’, ‘happy families’, and repetitive holiday themed music and decorations.  This serves as a constant reminder to survivors that it is holiday season and while the majority of people are excited and happy, they are not feeling a similar way.  It could leave them feeling further disconnected from society or guilty for not being able to take part in the holiday festivities.
  7. The assault may have happened around the holidays and many aspects about preparing for the holiday season can be triggering.
  8. Survivors may have a lot of anxiety being around large crowds and strangers.  The frequency of these occurrences will increase with daily activities as more people are out and about getting shopping or decorating done.  There will be bigger crowds on the sidewalk, longer lines in the supermarket and other stores and in public transit stations.  This will also occur during travel: airports, gas stations, roads, bus and train stations are all going to be more and more crowded.
  9. Holidays are a time when many people celebrate religion and make a better effort to go to the religious institution of their choice.  Survivors may feel betrayed by their religion or spiritual beliefs because of the assault. Frequent invitations to religious ceremonies and increased advertising by religious institutions can serve to be a reminder of these feelings of betrayal. 


It is not always possible to know the reasons why people seem overly-stressed or anxious during the holiday season.  Although someone’s actions may not make sense to you, it is always a good idea to keep in mind that they could be dealing with a personal traumatic event, whether that is a sexual assault or not.  Acknowledge that these next several weeks have different meanings for everyone and that some people are just focused on surviving.  Be open and non-judgmental to the diverse reactions that people may have.  Know the proper resources where you can refer survivors.  (BARCC has a great 24-7 hotline!)  Most of all, be ready to listen and support friends, family, or colleagues who may reach out to you for help. 

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Posted by stacey

Stacey formerly served BARCC as the coordinator for Community Awareness and Outreach. Prior to BARCC, she worked for the Navy as a sexual assault response coordinator and volunteered for the DC Rape Crisis Center. She got involved with anti-rape work during college and has enjoyed doing both direct services and educational work.


  1. Stacey, you hit this one out of the park. Thank you.

    "A survivor's family may not have believed them or decided it was best to sweep it under the rug and not address it. The survivor is therefore left each holiday with a horrible choice: return home and celebrate the holidays with the perpetrator and people who either don't know or were hostile towards the report or to stay away and miss being with their family."

    I can't tell you how many times I've heard some variation of this. Just heard it again recently from someone close. How sad that it's practically a truism among survivors.

    That's why it's important that we back each other up, us and our allies. Extend an invitation. Or set aside a little quiet time together. Or email the daily joke to give your friend a giggle, just to help with the tension, if that's something that works for your friend.

  2. I think this is right on. It reminded me of a young person I worked with who started crying and had to leave a party- she said that it was hard for her to see so many people who seemed happy and were having fun when she felt so terrible inside. This is such a normal feeling and a common experience that often leaves survivors once again feeling, isolated, anxious, unhappy, and like something is wrong with them.
    I hope that friends and family members take this in at the holiday season and that survivors are able to find support, through BARCC or elsewhere.

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