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Staying Sober During the Holidays

The holidays can be a difficult season for anyone, and this is especially true for those in recovery. Whether it is the stress of a family gathering or the potential for loneliness when spending a holiday by oneself, there can be a lot of strong emotions around this time of year. 

For individuals in recovery, successfully navigating periods of intense emotion is key to the long-term maintenance of sobriety. It can be easy to become dysregulated and volatile when the body’s stress response is activated by difficult events; a serious stress response can involve symptoms like insomnia, loss of appetite, and high anxiety. Depression around the holidays is also common. During these times of high emotionality, it can be all too easy to lose track of one’s long-term sobriety goals. The brains of many recovering addicts are still wired to look for a “quick fix” to powerful negative emotions, and experiencing such feelings can be a serious trigger to use. 

Fortunately, there are a ton of tools we can use to lessen the intensity of our emotions and to stay safe from substance use. Perhaps the most important thing is to stay connected to your recovery community. If you are a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, attending AA meetings (and perhaps increasing the frequency of your meeting attendance) is, as always, a great way to socialize and to meet others who can empathize with you and help you to feel less alone. Along these lines, talking to a sponsor or to sponsees (having sponsees is highly recommended!) can be a big help. Many AA groups also have holiday events planned for those who might be alone during the holidays. If you are not in a formal recovery program, rely on the network of sober friends you have, which is just as effective at giving you a sense of community, belonging, and support. If you are in sober living, make sure to reach out to housemates.

If you attend therapy, make sure to schedule an appointment or two around the holidays with your therapist. There really is no substitute for good therapy–skills such as CBT, DBT, and general stress tolerance are key to maintaining sobriety from all substances. And make sure to use the skills you learn in therapy on a regular basis, in order to develop a strong habit of reaching for them when under stress. Talking back to negative thoughts, reducing black-and-white thinking, mindfulness, finding ways to relax physically (such as exercise or a hot bath), and other methods can work wonders. These are tools that many of us learn in rehab, IOP, or individual therapy.

Often during the holidays we may find ourselves at gatherings where substances are present. The most obvious substance we encounter at many family events is alcohol, but visiting with old friends or perhaps other family members may also mean being around other drugs such as marijuana, opiates, or stimulants. There are a number of suggested ways for navigating these situations. Some people prefer a straightforward and honest approach, where we tell people that we are in fact in recovery from a substance addiction and that we will not be drinking (or using). This approach has the advantage that, hopefully, people will not ask you questions such as “Why aren’t you drinking?” or “Just have a little.” 

Others in recovery, who may not feel comfortable with making such a disclosure, may employ other tactics such as having a sober friend to call, planning to leave a bit earlier, telling people simply that they are not drinking that night, or in fact not attending events where it is clear that substance use will be prevalent. For some addicts, especially those in early recovery, it may be best to simply avoid an event where a bottle of wine will be nearby on a table or where one will witness a lot of drinking or substance use, as such situations can be quite triggering.

In terms of the potential for stress with family members where relationships are strained or where arguments can be common, working on interpersonal skills can be helpful. A therapist can be invaluable with regard to working on such skills. Regardless of the topic of an argument, remember to be assertive, without becoming aggressive or extremely passive and “people-pleasing.” Make sure your needs are heard and avoid being dragged into heavily emotional confrontations. Set boundaries with family or friends; examples of good boundary-setting might include refusing to engage in discussions about politics, declining to tell “helicoptering” parents about every detail of your life, or removing yourself from conversations where you are being treated poorly, being belittled, or where someone is being very rude.

Remember to have fun! There are so many wonderful things we get to do in sobriety that we never got to enjoy or missed out on because we were high, drunk, or hungover. And remember that there are almost always some great, helpful, caring people who will be available wherever you are. And when we’re alone, we can still do many pleasant activities. Make a list of enjoyable things you can do, with others or alone. You could go hiking, visit a museum, cook a delicious dinner, meet a friend for coffee, go shopping (although watch out for a cross-addiction to shopping!), play with a pet, or simply watch your favorite shows or movies. Obviously, there are a million other activities we could add to those examples–make a list of ideas! Be grateful simply to be getting good sleep, waking up clear-headed, not having to worry about going into withdrawal, and having a healthier body; all of these blessings would be gone and probably sorely missed were we actively using.

Practice self-compassion. Understand that the holidays can be difficult and that you are not alone in feeling that; it is completely okay to feel down or anxious or upset. The feelings will pass. And they will pass more quickly if we practice all the coping skills we have learned in sobriety. Socializing with supportive people, navigating situations where substances are present, engaging in a recovery program, and working on staying serene when dealing with difficult family members or friends, are all part of the constellation of tools we can use to make our holiday season safe, peaceful, and hopefully full of joy.