When you think of Halloween, what comes to mind? Candy, bobbing for apples, scary movies, cool fall nights? What about flashbacks, dissociation, feeling unsafe, and not in the fun spooky way? For some of us, Halloween is all those first things I mentioned – a day that is a little scary, a lot of fun and a chance to connect with family and friends. However, for a good portion of the population (about 70% given recent estimates), Halloween can be a reminder of past trauma, becoming a day where they feel their lives are actually in danger. If you are someone who has experienced trauma, if you love someone who has experienced trauma, or if you want to join me in my mission to make the world  more trauma-informed, read on to discover five different ways to make your Halloween celebrations more trauma informed and less of a potential trigger.

What is Trauma-Informed Anyway?

You don’t have to be a counselor, or someone in a helping profession to be trauma-informed and make the world a bit easier for those processing the impact of trauma. However, to better understand what trauma-informed is, we have to first understand what trauma is. In our society, sometimes we can have a very narrow definition of what trauma is, and what, “counts,” as trauma. When we talk about trauma, we tend to focus on the big things we see in the movies – sexual assault, military service, mass shootings. However, according to SAMHSA (a leading expert in trauma research and information), the traumatic event one experienced is only part of what makes an experience traumatic. SAMHSA defines trauma with three, “Es,” – event, experience, and effects. In this definition, when determining if an event was traumatic, we also take into account the person’s subjective experience (how they interrupted the event) and the long term effects of the event on the person. Therefore, any event, no matter how perceivably big or small it may seem, can result in trauma.
With more understanding of trauma, we can shift focus to the concept of trauma-informed. If being  trauma-informed had a tagline, it would be, “assume everyone has an unknown trauma, and treat everyone as such.” Our world is currently not set up to be friendly to those who have experienced trauma  – many people touch others without their consent, there are often loud sudden noises which can cause a startle response and other potential reminders of their trauma. The goal of being trauma-informed is to change the environment as much as possible to make it welcoming to all peoples – those who have experienced trauma and those who have not. Currently, there is a major focus on making schools and mental health spaces trauma informed and friendly. However, those who have experienced trauma also deserve to simply exist and feel safe in public and other spaces, which brings us back to Halloween, a day which, in its traditional sense, is not the most trauma informed. Read on to learn more about how to make your halloween more trauma informed.

Five Ways to Make Your Halloween More Trauma-Informed
1. Skip the Jump Scares

Whether it be a scary movie, going through a haunted house, or sneaking up on unsuspecting trick or treaters and yelling, “Boo!” jump scares are a trademark of Halloween. Think about the last time you experienced a jump scare  – what happened in your body? Maybe your heart started racing, your skin grew cold, or you jumped out of your chair, ready to run. For those who have not experienced trauma, this startle response can be invigorating and enjoyable, especially in the aftermath where one laughs with their friends and takes some deep breaths. However, those who have experienced trauma are typically already in a state of hypervigilance, meaning at their baseline, they can already be in the escalated state one may feel after a jump scare. This means a jump scare raises you to an unhealthy level of elevation, one in which becoming calm again is difficult to reach. If you are a person who experienced trauma, maybe consider skipping the haunted houses or scary movies notorious for jump scares (I’m looking at you Insidious). If you are aiming at making a trauma-informed Halloween, keep in mind that not everyone may enjoy a jump scare – either skip out on them completely, or provide a trigger warning that they may happen (maybe a sign in your front lawn saying “Warning: Jump Scares Live Here”)

2. Think Twice Before Grabbing Graphic Costumes and Decorations

If you are faint of heart, I wouldn’t recommend going to the local Spirit Halloween store. On one side – bloody knives, cut off hands, and masked killers. On the other side – “demon babies,” (not sure what that even means), dog skeletons, and bloody costumes. For some, this is just as much a sign of the season as snow and cookies are for the winter holiday season. For others, these are painful reminders of traumatic events they have experienced. Trauma survivors can, at times, experience a phenomenon called, “flashbacks,” where a cue or trigger can not only remind a survivor of their trauma, but can make them feel as though they are back in the traumatic moment, experiencing all the emotions and feelings of unsafety they once did. Obviously, I can’t tell you not to buy graphic costumes and decorations – it is your day. However, when you are in public spaces, maybe consider sheathing the bloody knife, or putting away the decapitated head prop until you reach your home. As for decorations, maybe save the extra graphic ones for inside your home or the backyard, and leave the less potentially triggering decorations for the front porch.

3. Avoid Blindfolds/Unsafe Sensory Experiences

When I was writing this part, what came to mind was a Halloween party I attended in sixth grade. At this party there was, of course, bobbing for apples. I remember my friend blindfolding me, spinning me around, and telling me to try to catch a floating apple in my teeth. It was one of the most disorienting experiences of my life, and I remember not only not catching an apple, but also coming up from the tub of water feeling a little panicky. For most people, being deprived of one of your senses (or receiving an unfamiliar sensory input – looking at you bowl of wet spaghetti that is supposedly insides) is disorienting – for those who have experienced trauma, it can trigger feelings of being unsafe. Trauma survivors can sometimes engage in room scanning behaviors, meaning they feel more safe when they are aware of what is happening in the space around them. Blindfolds and other sensory experiences can make this behavior difficult, and lead to feelings of panic. Again, I am not telling you to not have bobbing for apples or other gross out experiences at your party – just never pressure someone to participate if they decline. Remember the trauma informed tagline “assume everyone has an unknown trauma, and treat everyone as such.”

4. Alcohol/Drug Use Can Make it Worst

Alcohol is almost as associated with Halloween as candy and costumes – everything from brew in a witches cauldron to jello shots in syringes. When someone is experiencing a trauma response at a Halloween event, the alcohol and/or drugs can be tempting – it is a substance guaranteed to numb the pain and terror one may be experiencing. However, in the long run, utilizing substances to numb trauma responses can be damaging. At best, it can lead to increased levels of anxiety in the morning and, at worst, it can lead to long term dependency concerns. When at a party, avoid alcohol and drugs as best you can if you are experiencing trauma symptoms. If you are hosting a party, even consider having it be alcohol free and see what other fun you can have!

5. When in doubt – ASK CONSENT!

If I can summarize these tips into one sentence it would be this – if you aren’t sure, ask! Before scaring someone, before blindfolding someone, before touching someone, ask if it is something they are okay with.  Remember what is fun for you may not be fun for everyone, or may even trigger a trauma response. If someone declines to participate, respect those boundaries, and do not make them feel shame or embarrassment for not participating. Hmm, now that I think about it, maybe this is good advice for everyday, and not just Halloween. Just a thought.

Reach Out

I just provided some tricks to make Halloween a little easier for those who have experienced trauma. However, these are bandaids solutions to a bigger concern – trauma recovery. Trauma is something that can make you feel isolated, and like it is something that only you can handle. Don’t buy into that lie – healing is found in connection, especially with loved ones and a mental health professional trained in trauma treatment.

As a counselor, a population I specialize in is trauma survivors – I love learning of resilience from survivors and helping them develop their inner strength and worth. Personally, the therapy interventions I use for working through trauma include EMDR (rapid eye movement desensitization),  Somatic Experiencing, and Internal Family Systems. All these treatments revolve around noticing where in your body the trauma is being held, and how we can desensitize you to these traumatic memories. In session, I may ask you to recall the traumatic experience from a safe space, or focus your attention on it. When thinking about the traumatic event, I may ask you to take note of your body and where you are feeling tension or discomfort as we discuss the event. We then go over the event together, focusing on how it interacts with your body’s experience of it. If we are practicing EMDR, I may ask you to engage in bilateral stimulation such as tapping opposite sides of your body or following  my finger with your eyes as you think about the experience.  On the practical side, we may also work together to make a list of triggers, or outside events which trigger that same bodily reaction. Although not ones I utilize in therapy, other modalities include TF-CBT (trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy), Cognitive Processing therapy, and mindfulness techniques.

I know – all of it sounds very overwhelming.  However, that is why a counselor is in the room with you the whole time to guide you. This process can take however long it needs to, and if we can only get a few inches into the experience every session, that is all we will do. Trauma recovery is all about you regaining your autonomy and peace, and part of that is taking treatment at the rate you want to.