Sobriety And The Holiday Season

The holiday season is often represented as a magical, joy-filled time where “dreams may come true.” However, in my experience as a practicing psychotherapist working within the behavioral health field, the reality is far more aligned with a stressful and challenging experience, especially for those who are experiencing behavioral health conditions like substance use disorders. Thankfully, there are many ways to navigate what can be a tricky time of year for those looking to stay sober. Utilizing recovery-focused strategies to stay sober over the holidays can keep this season joyful and bright.

The Stress Of The Season

It feels as if some kind of switch is turned on the day after Halloween, as many individuals begin to experience increased levels of anxiety, depression, and urges to use a substance to help cope with their increased sense of discomfort around this time. The specific reasons behind the discomfort usually differ. Yet, the same symptoms of increased worry, isolation, difficulty focusing on work or school, and engaging in unhealthy behaviors to help manage these feelings seem to be consistent for the majority of those who struggle during the holidays.

“The holiday season is often described as a time of coming together; however, many describe feeling alone as they navigate their feelings of frustration from their overwhelming to-do lists.”

- Amber Biello-Taylor, Certified Addiction Professional

Concerns with hosting major family dinners (and the baggage associated with it), affording all the gifts on the gift list, meeting end-of-the-year deadlines for work, navigating complex familial communication patterns (also called family drama), and managing existing behavioral health concerns are all potential barriers for those trying to stay sober this holiday season. It’s not surprising then that 30% of US adults reported experiencing increased stress levels during the holidays last year.

The Holidays Can Mark Painful Times

It is important to recognize that not everyone observes the holidays as joyful. For those who have experienced significant traumatic events or loss during these times, the holiday season is a stark reminder of those tremendously difficult moments. For some, the holiday season represents that loss and the feeling of loneliness that can permeate the mind as others are together with their families, leading to feelings such as sadness, resentment, guilt, and shame.

Sometimes, individuals who experience these emotions during the holidays struggle with society celebrating this time of the year when they are in so much pain, leading to isolation and increased substance use to cope.

Increased Temptation

These different experiences occur alongside a time of the year well known for its inclusion of substances, often alcohol, to “celebrate” the holiday season. Whether it is at a holiday work party, family gathering, or simply walking down the various aisles at the grocery store, alcohol in all its forms is commonly on display. This results in few welcoming environments for those who are looking to maintain their sobriety.

Helpful Strategies

Staying sober over the holidays can feel like an extraordinary feat; however, there are some helpful strategies one can easily incorporate into their holiday season to assist.

Know Your Triggers

People, places, and things are the foundation of trigger management. Knowing one’s triggers helps improve the ability to safely manage them or avoid them entirely. Triggers are different for everyone, but some common examples include being around substances, being around intoxicated individuals, and being in locations of past use or traumatic events. It’s impossible to plan and avoid all triggers, but having a plan to manage them as they occur could make all the difference.

Have An Escape Plan

Even the best-laid plans can go awry, whether it is a family dinner turning into a major argument or an unexpected guest bringing a substance to a sober party. No matter the situation, having a game plan to maintain one’s safety is imperative. Consider your options to exit any unsafe environment before entering, as well as assess who can be a part of your “lifeline” to assist with getting somewhere safe. This could be someone who is there in person or simply a text away. Having a plan can be integral to keeping safe during the holidays.

Set Realistic Boundaries

One of the most important elements in any relationship is communicating what makes you feel safe, which is what setting a boundary is all about. Letting people know you are not able to be around substances or, at the very least, recognizing that you are not comfortable being around them and choosing not to is an important step in maintaining safety during the holidays. Setting boundaries can apply to any person, place, or thing that can influence one’s mental health.

Use Coping Skills

Coping strategies are powerful tools to stay sober over the holidays when used frequently. Deep breathing, gratitude lists, positive affirmations, journaling, exercise, yoga, meditation, sleeping well, healthy eating, and grounding exercises are all great examples of coping strategies. They are meant to be used as a daily practice to keep the body and mind feeling balanced.

Connect With Others

Isolation and loneliness are commonly experienced during the holidays, even when surrounded by family and friends. Sometimes, it can be difficult to feel connected when also feeling overwhelmed. Finding social support is a powerful anchor or outlet for maintaining one’s sense of peace. Social engagement can be as simple as attending church, sports groups, 12-step meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous, or even finding a consistent day or time to spend with people who feel safe with no premise of needing substances involved in the social gathering.

Seek Professional Support

Having a supportive substance abuse professional working with you during the holidays can play a pivotal role in navigating the complex components of family, work, and social expectations in a world that does not always account for the well-being of those in sobriety or managing a mental health condition. Sometimes, simply having an unbiased and non-judgmental person in your corner can make all the difference in working through these elements.

Get Help This Holiday Season

The holiday season has many different meanings to many people on their recovery journey. Whether you are in early recovery, long-term recovery, working through feelings of depression, or trying to manage increasing levels of anxiety, the first step toward an addiction-free future starts with recognizing where you are at this moment and having a desire to change.

If you are ready to start your recovery journey this holiday season, contact a treatment provider today to explore your treatment options.

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Amber Biello-Taylor, CAP, LCSW

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