The holiday season is full of family, friends, and good food. It can also be full of stressful situations and relapse triggers. Family drama, relationship stresses, and finances can all make anyone want to hide away until the season is over.
As most substance use is done as an escape from these feelings, the risk of relapse is significantly higher during the holidays. Pain from chronic conditions often worsens in colder climates like we have here in Iowa, so prescription abuse happens more during this time as well.
Tempting Situations and Triggers
Alcohol, from cocktail parties and spiked eggnog/cider to beer during the big football games, is also flowing plentifully from now through the New Year. Family gatherings and office parties alike can be one big trigger moment for recovering alcoholics.
These situations and temptations can all be intimidating to someone who is trying to continue their recovery path. Avoiding triggering situations is one way to lower your relapse risk, but you don’t have to give up on the celebrations entirely.
1. Keep Your Support System Close at Hand
One of the most important aspects in recovery is keeping a strong support system. People who genuinely care about your sobriety and have your best interests at heart are paramount to a successful life after substance use. While some of these people may be family, friends, co-workers, or those who have been through recovery themselves, they may not be around you in the holiday situations.
Having the ability to call, text, or chat via social media with someone who is sensitive to your struggle could be the difference between a near-slip and a relapse. Regardless of the struggling moment you find yourself in, remember that you do not have to struggle silently and alone.
2. Set Boundaries
Boundaries can be difficult, especially at holiday times. There’s always going to be that one great-aunt who wears too much perfume and loves to squeeze cheeks, and that distant cousin who laughs a little too loudly at his own (terrible) jokes. Those situations are tame in comparison to the challenges of your first holiday season clean and/or sober.
There will inevitably be the hard questions to answer and some gossipy relatives whispering in a corner. If you are recovering from alcohol addiction, you may find spiked eggnog, wine, and other spirits being waved around like bait in front of a fish. Don’t hesitate to pass on things you were once known for. Do not feel you have to explain your change in behavior unless you feel comfortable doing so. A simple excuse of, “I’m trying to be healthier” is always a good deflection.
The holidays can be expensive as well. From food and decorations to gifts and traveling, it is easy to overextend oneself and end up stressing over finances. Set budget limits and stick to them. Remember that the most important part of the holidays isn’t how expensive and perfect things are: it’s the people you connect with and the memories you make.
3. Self Care: A Gift for You From You
Right along with boundaries is self care. Setting boundaries to protect yourself is the first step toward taking good care of yourself. Other aspects include practicing good mental health, good physical health, and knowing your own limits. Don’t be afraid to say no to an invitation, an offer of a cocktail, or when asked to add “just one more thing” to your already-full schedule.
Remembering to take care of yourself can end up taking a back seat during the holidays. Days off work make for an excess of free time, and that can be a recipe for overthinking. Don’t allow yourself to go down the rabbit hole following memories of old habits you’ve recovered from. Also, take care not to allow yourself to be negatively affected by the weather. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a very real and very dangerous thing for those in recovery.
Take time to pray, meditate, journal, or read either to start your day or before bedtime. Take a long, hot bath. Cuddle up in your favorite pajamas with a cup of tea or cocoa and just enjoy the colorful lights (inside or outside the window) – or maybe simply watch the snow fall while listening to music. These practices can help ease the stresses of the holiday season and keep your mind in a good place.
4. Have an Attitude of Gratitude
Speaking of having one’s mind in a good place, remember that old adage that says, “it’s better to give than to receive”? Yeah, that one. It’s true. And the holidays are a great time to jump in headfirst to learning how good it can be!
Finding ways to give back or volunteer in your community during the holidays is a wonderful way to keep the happiness flowing. Time off work may give you the perfect chance to try volunteering.
Helping serve a free meal at your church or a shelter, donating things you no longer wear or use to those in need, or even just giving out smiles and compliments to strangers doesn’t just help the recipient – it benefits you, too.
5. Keep a Drink in Your Hand
If you are recovering from alcohol addiction, holiday parties can be brutal in terms of the temptation surrounding you. There will always be someone unaware of your situation who wants to make you a drink. Keeping a (non-alcoholic) drink in your hand is a great diversion tactic to prevent well-meaning family, friends, or co-workers from accidentally tempting you with relapse.
Watching carefully if someone else is pouring, being careful to not use a wine/champagne glass, and marking your drink cup can help you prevent inadvertently taking a sip of something you’re trying to avoid. If it happens, however, don’t panic. It’s not the end of the world. Simply stop drinking it and contact someone in your support system to tell them what happened.
Being accountable for mistakes instead of keeping secrets or trying to rationalize them is the best way to prevent them from turning into a relapse. If guilt and regret are too much, or if you feel excessively uncomfortable being around alcohol after a slip like that, there is no shame in excusing yourself and cutting out of the party early.
6. Have a Plan – And a Plan B!
Going into any holiday get-together after beginning your recovery journey is easier if you have a plan to follow. Things may not go according to that plan, but having it is a good idea regardless. Decide before you get there how to handle any questions about your sobriety. You have control over who knows about your recovery and who doesn’t need to. However, it’s best to have a somewhat-rehearsed script to answer the difficult questions.
Having replies for drink offers is also a good idea. Most people will respect someone’s choice to not have alcohol without questioning it further, so don’t stress about pressure.
If at any time you feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed, know you are under no obligation to be in that conversation or that situation. Excusing yourself to the restroom, outside for some fresh air, or even politely extracting yourself from the party to head home are all acceptable and need no further explanation.
You should always have a few people from your support system that are aware of your situation, however, so they can become your plan B if you begin to feel overwhelmed and need someone to talk to. Maybe just a quick call or text exchange will help calm you down enough to stay, or maybe they can talk to you as you head home (or even pick you up/come talk in person if you feel you can’t be alone).
In any case, there should always be a back-up plan for getting out of a stressful holiday situation rather than risk relapse. Whether it’s being inundated with family drama, being grilled by someone about your recovery, or the tempting smell of alcohol, know your limits and when you need to extract yourself.
Put Your Sobriety First This Holiday Season
The holidays can be a joyful time, if you remember it’s not being selfish to put your sobriety and your needs first. This new life post-substance-use is a gift to your loved ones and yourself, so protecting that clean and sober lifestyle is the most important thing.