Tips for staying sober, preventing relapse and avoiding the holiday blues
While the holidays are filled with festivities, these same celebrations and traditions can also be a source of stress, especially for those navigating early sobriety. Drug and alcohol use can be more prevalent throughout the holidays as a result of this stress, leading to an increased number of high-risk situations during the otherwise intended positivity.
Preparing for the holidays and implementing strategies to navigate this time safely is paramount throughout the recovery process, and while it can be difficult to embrace the changes that the holidays demand, it is also necessary to continue prioritizing one's sobriety and future.
Preparing for the Stresses of Holidays
Before one can prepare for the holidays, it is important to recognize how the holidays present unique hurdles. For some, getting together with extended family can be a stress on its own. Large groups can be difficult to manage, and there can be many unknowns when large groups are together. As those in recovery are still learning to better communicate and navigate social situations, these large gatherings can be incredibly intimidating with the wide variety of opinions and acceptance surrounding words like “addiction” or the recovery process.
Others may have old traditions that need to be adjusted, amended, or dismissed around the holiday season due to their associations with the use of addictive substances. While watching a football game or putting on a movie may be innocent enough traditions, if one is used to drinking beer during these activities, participating in these traditions can bring up many unnecessary urges and cravings, even if the party itself is sober. Not only does this mean that one's regular traditions are compromised, but it can also bring a wealth of open time that needs to be filled with new holiday celebrations.
Even the act of gift-giving can be stressful. While giving gifts can be a powerful resource for reestablishing relationships in one's sobriety, there are also a number of stresses associated with the practice. For some, the pressure of finding a gift that one believes is “sufficient” can be stressful on its own, while others may be concerned about the financial component, worrying about balancing one's finances while feeling pressured to take on these extra expenses during the holidays.
Navigating the Familial Component
One's family can present either an unnecessary hurdle or a supportive force throughout recovery, and the holidays are no different. While going to family gatherings can be stressful, it can be powerful to instead host a holiday event oneself, which comes with various advantages for one's continued sobriety. Having a holiday celebration in one's own home can ensure that one's resources and recovery toolkit are available if needed, and one can keep safe areas like their bedrooms or other spaces close by and accessible in case of unforeseen stressors.
Hosting one's own holiday festivities also allows for an individual to manage the guest list. While guest lists are still kept under tight regulation due to the continued impact of COVID-19, these limited guest lists can be an advantage to those navigating their sober holidays. By limiting the guest list, one can better select individuals who are knowledgeable and supportive of the recovery process, ensuring that there are fewer barriers between oneself and the holiday festivities. It also allows the celebrations to be carried out in a sober environment of one's control.
Creating New Traditions
Developing new traditions for the holidays is essential. For those navigating their sobriety, putting as much distance between one's current, sober self and past routine is necessary for continuing to prioritize one's sobriety, and this means dismissing old traditions to create new, sober activities around the holidays. Creating new traditions wholly separate from one's past use can take any number of forms, and working alongside friends and family members can help ensure that these traditions are well accepted by those most important to one's continued sobriety. Deciding on new traditions tied to the spirit or history of the holidays specifically, incorporating some of one's newfound interests or hobbies, or using this time of year to explore a new cultural experience can all be ways to make the holidays into something new with sobriety at the forefront of one's mind.
Managing Gifts and Expectations
Gifts are powerful acts of caring and appreciation. However, there are also stresses associated with them. Setting a budget ahead of time can help those in recovery take the edge off of the stresses associated with purchasing a gift, and getting one's friends and family to agree on a budget can also ensure that an individual feels like they are giving and receiving in equal measure. However, there are other ways to give thanks during the holidays.
Gifts don't have to be limited to something to unwrap during the holidays – they can also be experiences like a home-cooked dinner or a hand-made expression of thanks. Essentially, they can be anything that another person might appreciate. For those in recovery, considering the variable forms of gift-giving can open new ways to communicate one's thanks for another's support and care along their sober journey.
Seven Tips for Staying Sober*
1. Hatch a holiday escape plan, and plan to protect your sobriety
The first tip sounds like a no-brainer, but plan ahead. Holiday-themed parties and family gatherings are often soaked in alcohol, and people are likely to offer you a drink—and they might be dumbstruck when you prefer to be sober. Plan ahead for uncomfortable situations and triggering environments. What might your holiday plan involve?
Attend a Twelve-Step meeting beforehand, or invite a sober friend to tag along
Make plans to meet up with your sponsor or talk on the phone
Find your own transportation, or hitch a ride with someone in your support system
Limit your time around stressful situations and difficult people
Prepare to politely refuse alcohol or other drugs
Have an escape plan if things go south
Don't be surprised by a trigger. If you come prepared to protect your sobriety, you should be able to outmaneuver addiction and avoid any potential relapses.
2. Rewrite the holiday story in your head
If you become a ball of wretched energy during the holidays, perhaps your own expectations have become your downfall.
Speak with a sober friend or sponsor about the emotions and expectations you have wrapped up in the holidays—especially if you feel resentful, or if you replay in your mind old childhood experiences and memories. You need to investigate and challenge the internal monologue about what you are owed and what you are lacking—some of which might be a carryover from addiction. Then you can break down those defensive walls and forgive other people, and you can approach the holiday season with a stronger sense of gratitude. When those feelings are left untended, people in addiction recovery often experience a buildup of stress and resentment that eventually leads to relapse. When self-identifying addicts or alcoholics refuse to challenge those feelings of resentment and self-pity, they set the stage for relapse and disaster. Remember, the disease of addiction is as powerful the day after a holiday as it is the day of and the day before. As we learn during addiction rehab and in the meeting rooms, recovery is a one-day-at-a-time endeavor, no matter the season.
3. Want to stay sober? Stay helpful
If you want to stay sober during the holidays, look for every opportunity to be of service. Serve a meal at a homeless shelter, reach out to a newcomer at a meeting, spend time with an elderly loved one or neighbor.
There are a million different ways to give back, pay it forward and be of service, and each opportunity guides you further away from resentment, self-pity and fear.
When you take the opportunity to connect with others—to see, value and honor their experience—you exercise empathy. You exist outside of yourself, and you begin to notice all the blessings your life already contains. And it doesn't get more human, or more recovery, than that.
4. Be mindful of what you're drinking—and thinking
At family gatherings and social events, tote around your favorite non-alcoholic drink. People won't feel so inclined to offer you a drink, and they won't get the chance to pester you about your sobriety. Be mindful of asking someone else to grab you a drink. They may misunderstand you or forget that you don't intend to drink alcohol. If you do accidentally take a sip of an alcoholic beverage, don't panic. It's only a sip, and it doesn't mean you've relapsed—or that you should entertain the thought of relapsing now. If those thoughts begin to creep in—those rationalizations about your eminent capability to now handle your liquor—shut them down immediately. Your abstinence did not, in fact, teach you how to control your drinking, because abstinence didn't rewire your brain to be non-addicted. The damage is done, and there's no going back. Instead, talk it out with your sponsor or sober friends. A mistake is not a relapse, and it's not going to land you in rehab, but those secrets might.
5. Some triggers and traps are optional
If you know Cousin Sadie is going to grill you about rehab, avoid her. If Uncle Brian is going to mix you a stiff drink, stay away from him. If the office New Year's party is really all about drinking or other drug use, make a brief appearance or don't attend. It's unrealistic in all of these scenarios to say, "I can soldier through it."
That's what Step One of the Twelve Steps teaches us, right? That we don't have the power. So why put yourself in the position of having to "power through" an obstacle course of relapse triggers? Staying sober and safeguarding your recovery must always come first.
6. Practice self-care throughout the holidays
Celebrate the holiday season and the fullness of your sober life by taking time for yourself. Proper nutrition, gentle exercise and restorative sleep can do wonders for your well-being. The better you feel physically, the stronger you will be emotionally.
Nourish your spirit, too, through personal reflection and connection with those you love. Find some quiet time each day for relaxation and meditation—if only for a few minutes, no matter how busy you are. And let your spirit be your guide.
7. If you need treatment for addiction to alcohol or other drugs, consider going to rehab over the holidays
Some families might consider the holidays an inappropriate time to help a loved one get into addiction treatment when, in fact, it could be an ideal opportunity. For many of the reasons mentioned earlier, substance abuse tends to ramp up over the holidays. Addiction treatment initiated during the holidays could be the best gift you give to your family, your friends and yourself.