The holiday season can be a very cheerful time for some people. For others, the holly-jolly time of year can bring heightened anxiety, depression, and stress. The main stressor during the end of the year festivities is overwhelmingly financial; the pressure of providing a certain caliber of gifts is a true difficulty for many.
Another main stressor is family tension and disagreements, one that will undoubtedly only be more prominent after the tumultuous year 2020 has been. Though these situations are difficult for anyone to experience, it’s especially challenging to experience them as a person recovering from alcoholism or addiction. Roughly 29% of people drink more during the holidays. If you’ve sworn off alcohol, the pressure to imbibe can cause extra stress and temptation. While the end of the year may present challenges to sobriety, there are ways to avoid holiday addiction relapses.
Utilize Your Recovery Program
When dealing with the stressors of the holiday season, it is important for addicts to stay very close to whichever program they are using as part of their recovery. Whether it’s counseling or twelve step programs, it’s imperative to create relationships within the recovery community, especially if your normal holiday crew is detrimental to your sobriety. If you are part of a twelve-step program, the holiday season is the time to start going to more meetings. Being proactive about your recovery can help make difficult times easier, and hitting a few more meetings a week can be extremely beneficial.
One of the ideas behind twelve-step programs is that it allows people to feel connected to others so that they no longer feel that they are suffering alone. This can be even more important when the holiday season comes around, as recovering addicts will find that a lot of people in recovery have similar issues with this time of year, and hearing stories about other people’s suffering can make your own suffering feel a bit less severe. This is an especially helpful tool if your family situation causes stress, as the recovery community can act as a placeholder during a time that is so focused on “traditional” family structure. For people who are earlier on in their recovery journey, there may be some great advice given by long-time members who have gone through the holiday season many times and survived.
Seek Out Holiday-Specific Sobriety Events
Some twelve-step programs may also have specific events that will help addicts get through certain days that are particularly triggering. The Alcoholics Anonymous program will often have a full-day meeting on Christmas Day, which anyone is welcome to attend. This means they will have an open meeting every hour for the entire day of Christmas, and they will often even provide food and refreshments. These meetings not only provide support on a day that often revolves around alcohol, it recreates a safe group structure, so you don’t have to miss out on the socialization aspect of the holidays. This also allows those who may not have a place to go on this day to feel as though they can celebrate Christmas with friends rather than family. This type of support is often also given around New Year’s Eve, an even more alcohol-crazed night, and AA encourages members to attend if they are unsure as to how to celebrate the ringing in of a new year. Having a plan in place for safe-but-still-festive events during the holidays can help maintain a certain level of cheer, while creating a new way to celebrate the holiday season as a recovering addict.
Being proactive can allow the holiday season to be less triggering, and those in recovery may be able to get through it more easily than they originally thought. Having a strategy as to how to deal with the holiday season is the best way to get through it sober, so think ahead of what triggers might be around and decide how you will deal with them before they come up. Develop questions to ask yourself before attending a party to determine if it’s safe for you to go. Spend time thinking and journaling about your favorite parts of the holidays that don’t involve alcohol, and create plans to highlight them in your festivities. Ask yourself what specific people and places trigger you and determine how you will say no if opportunities to socialize with these people/in these places come up.
If you are attending a party with many people who don’t know about your recovery, rehearse how you will refuse alcohol respectfully. Solidify transportation plans to and from any events, and check that you know the bus schedule or that you’ve parked in a location where you can leave easily if your sobriety feels threatened. With a bit of planning, the holiday season may not be as difficult to get through as you feared, and you will be successful at maintaining your sobriety.
Practice Saying No
Even for folks who aren’t experiencing alcoholism, boundaries are imperative to living a happy and healthy life. By establishing and maintaining boundaries, we are able to respect our own needs while having healthy relationships with friends, family members and other people in our lives. This can be doubly important when in recovery, as addiction makes the line between healthy and unhealthy behavior murky. An important way of creating boundaries is to not overextend yourself during the holiday season. There are a lot of social events that happen during the holidays, and it can be easy to feel as though you have to attend each and every one. It is absolutely okay to skip an event or two – this might make the holiday season a little bit less stressful.
This can also be helpful when you are trying to avoid temptation: since almost all holiday parties feature booze, only sticking to the parties you enjoy can be beneficial for your recovery. Consider what you’d like to say when invited to a party that you don’t feel comfortable attending and how much information the other person deserves to hear. Being thoughtful and intentional with your words creates clarity for both parties and can make you feel more confident in your choices. Even so, remember that the holiday season is an easy time of year to decline a party invite, as there is an assumption that everyone has multiple events to go to, so the questions about you not attending will probably be limited.
Know When To Leave
Another aspect of holiday boundary setting is knowing when to leave a party. At the beginning of a holiday event, most people are simply settling in, chatting with other guests and working on their first drink. As the party progresses, however, more drinks are poured and often guests get a bit tipsy. Often around the holidays, people overindulge in both food and alcohol more than they do during other times of the year. This excess can create a very uncomfortable environment for a person experiencing addiction and make social gatherings taxing to one’s sobriety. To avoid triggering situations, plan your departure time and manner before going to the event. There is no shame in leaving a party first, especially if it means you will be more likely to leave with your sobriety intact. By creating these boundaries before you arrive, the event will be significantly less stressful, and you will be more likely to enjoy yourself.
Take Care of Yourself
Just because the holidays are in full swing doesn’t mean that your needs as a human being go out the window. Though the end of the year can be packed with events and parties, remember to keep up with your self-care routine, especially as a person in recovery. Routine is grounding and comforting to human beings and can help us stay focused on who we are and what we want. Maintain a normal sleeping schedule and try to eat the types of foods that make you feel good.
Keeping up an exercise routine is a great way to keep your body running normally, lower stress levels, and reduce the craving for booze. Keep up with your meditative practice if you have one and develop ways to alter this practice to be used in public if needed. Comforting self-care practices are a great way to keep yourself on track when most of the world is lost at the end of December, “what day is it again?” mindset.
During the holiday season, there are numerous charities that need extra help. Whether it be helping collect charitable donations or working in a soup kitchen, the holidays are a great time of year to give back. Studies show that volunteering has a positive effect on stress levels and is effective in combating depression, which are two major causes of relapses in recovering addicts. This can be a great way for an addict to stay away from their drug of choice, as they become busy helping others and may not have time to attend all the special events on their calendar. Volunteering can provide an easy excuse as to why you cannot attend that booze-fest of an office holiday party. Not only does volunteering fill up your calendar with things other than parties, but it is also a great way to feel good about yourself. Doing things for others can create those “feel good” emotions we are all craving, especially during the latter part of the year. Volunteering your time to a charity can cause a great abundance of gratitude, which, in turn, can make you appreciate your own life just a bit more.
Lean In To Your Community
If manning soup kitchens or ringing Salvation Army bells isn’t your thing, consider giving back to the sober and recovery communities. Many kinds of 12-step programs need help with tasks such as set- up, tear-down, kitchen duty, and there is always something that can be done to help make sure the meeting runs smoothly. Volunteering for a group about which you are passionate is a great way to feel connected and to combat depression, while the act of volunteering is beneficial to the recovery process. When looking at the original twelve-step group Alcoholics Anonymous, we see that one of the pillars to recovery is service work. The reason for this is that it helps build community within the twelve-step group. People come together to help make sure the meeting runs smoothly.
As they perform their tasks, they chat and perhaps find friends within the recovery community. This is helpful for the person experiencing addiction and is important to remember that they no longer have to suffer alone. By creating a sense of community within the twelve-step group, the person experiencing addiction is able to get through life stressors more easily, because they have people they can talk to. This is also especially true during the holidays, as the triggers for one person are often shared by others. By giving your time to serve the twelve-step community, the community connection becomes stronger and getting through the Holiday season without relapse becomes easier.
Set Short Term Goals
While the rest of the world is popping champagne and drinking nog, it can be helpful to have a short-term, achievable goal to keep in mind. Seeking to achieve something specific can help keep your mind off the alcohol that others are drinking. It also gives you a boost of Dopamine when you achieve it. Learn a new craft, begin learning a new language, make a list of movies you haven’t seen, then get to work. There are many simple ways to distract your brain with tasks to accomplish. If it helps, make these goals things you would be unable to do if you weren’t sober; for example, it’s hard to finish a book or try a new form of exercising if you’ve been drinking. This way you have additional enticement to stay sober and is an easy way to avoid holiday addiction relapses.
Ask For Help
People who have been in the recovery community for a long time will have a lot of great advice if this is one of your first holiday seasons as a sober person. There are community meetings and online resources that are especially designed for the holiday season, knowing that this time of year is difficult for those recovering from addiction. There is absolutely no shame in admitting that you need a helping hand this time of year. In fact, it’s normal. Nearly 84 percent of people report being overwhelmed by the holidays. Sober or not, it’s an objectively hard time of year. Even if you’ve been sober for many years, acknowledge that the holidays are extra challenging and give yourself permission to identify and fulfill your needs as they come up. If this means leaning on others, make the call. Try to avoid thinking you can tackle the stressors of the season alone.
Tips for Staying Sober During the Holidays
- When you get to a party, immediately get soda water with lemon in your hand. This will stop people from constantly asking if you would like a drink and will give you something to do with your hands.
- Mingle as much as possible. Social Anxiety may spike without alcohol, but it is worth the struggle. If you are constantly moving from one group to another, people will not notice that you are not drinking. Also, if you do decide to leave early, people won’t notice, as you’ve already spoken to everyone you know.
- Bring a sober friend or a trusted confidant. This will deflect some of the attention off you and you can lean on each other when the party starts to get boozy.
- Take a break. Use the washroom or go outside for some air. Allow yourself to take time in the middle of an event if you need it. Say the serenity prayer, call your sponsor, do whatever you think might help you at that moment.
- Help out the hostess. If you are at a family party or a friend’s house for a get-together, offer to do the dishes or clean up some of the food. It will help distract you from cravings, but it will also make you look busy, so people will be less likely to offer you a drink.
Know You’re Not Alone
No matter how you tackle this time of year, remember that you are not the only one who has difficulty at this time of year. A lot of people find the holidays very challenging, and it can be important to think of how you might approach this season before it actually comes. One of the best things to do is to talk to friends you may have who are also sober. It is very likely that they will also have some issues with the holiday season, and together you might be able to come up with a plan that can help get both of you through the season sober.
Sobriety is a challenging journey, but one that is so very worth it. With a bit of planning maintaining your recovery during the holidays is completely possible. Even though many things will change, viewing the new sober holiday traditions as new and exciting parts of your life helps keep your outlook positive and bring you sobriety with you into the new year.
This was originally posted Dec 12, 2019 and has been updated Nov 17, 2020.
Having been on both sides of active addition, both the person using, and the person affected by a loved one using drugs and alcohol, Lucas has been involved in recovery since 2009. He has been working in the treatment industry since 2013. Using his personal experience and wealth of knowledge learned from professional development and immersion in the recovery field, he has spoken with thousands of families and helped hundreds of people attain long-term sobriety. In 2020, the opportunity presented to join in and start Illuminate Recovery. Understanding the importance of personalized treatment plans and the complex nature between substance abuse and co-occurring disorders, has helped Illuminate Recovery build a strong curriculum and a phenomenal staff. Illuminate Recovery now has a medical doctor who is board certified in addiction medicine and a psychiatric medical doctor who works side by side with independently licensed therapists to provide compassionate and effective treatment.