The holidays are a great time for so many people that sometimes we forget that for many others, the experience might be different. Recovering addicts often face unique stresses during the holiday season, which can bring the temptation to use substances as a coping method.
No matter how hard you’ve worked to avoid the impulse to drink or use drugs during the year, certain sources of stress and negative feelings specific to the winter holidays may make it especially difficult to stay sober, but it’s important to remember: the holidays only come once a year, while your recovery is a lifelong battle. Don’t let the winter months leave you back at square one.
The Unique Stresses that Recovering Addicts Face During the Holidays
Negative thoughts can be overwhelming during certain times of the year, and most Americans report the stress being the highest during the holiday season.
According to the Harvard Medical Newsletter On the Brain, 62 percent of Americans report that their stress levels are elevated during the holiday season.
This stress often comes from multiple directions:
- Financial stress: buying presents for family or spending money on travel can cause stress to build;
- Organizational stress: planning for holiday travel or hosting friends and family can add pressure to a stressful time of year;
- Relationship strain: Many people report that holiday stress is brought on by interacting with family members with whom they have a strained relationship.
Consider the ways that these sources of stress affect the general population and then think about how recovering addicts may experience these stresses to a greater degree: people in recovery may be experiencing deeper financial issues or have more tension about seeing certain friends or family members for the first time since their addiction.
FHE Health wants to ensure that anyone struggling with substance abuse has access to the tools needed to cope at a time that may be particularly hard. Here are five tips to avoid relapse during the holidays:
1. Spread Holiday Cheer
In the face of the negative feelings brought on by strained relationships, loneliness, the feeling of being excluded, financial stress, and more, you may find yourself working extra hard to stay positive during this potentially tense time of year.
Anyone can find themselves in a dark place when faced with stress, but addicts are more susceptible than many others due to unique factors, including holiday-specific triggers — for example, events or family members that may influence the desire to use — and the feeling that using drugs or alcohol is the only way to cope.
We recommend staying positive, even if it means forcing it a little bit. Staying isolated and fixated on these dark feelings can make it more difficult to avoid relapse while forcing yourself to take part in constructive, positive activities during this time of year can offer a boost to your mental health.
Staying active in your community and volunteering can trigger dopamine releases the hormone that makes you feel good. If you’re feeling down or overly stressed out during the holidays, leverage this effect to improve your emotional state by seeking out a gift drive, homeless shelter, or food bank that helps the needy in your area.
2. Be Wary of Expectations
The holidays can be plagued with unrealistic expectations, pushed on us by TV, movies, and popular culture in general. Holidays are different for everyone, but it’s important to remember: very few people celebrate the holidays through the picture-perfect lens that you see on TV.
Fear of missing out, or “FOMO” is common during this time of year. Resist the urge to compare your holidays to unrealistic representations or even to other people’s perceptions. The expectations of the “perfect” holidays can cause an elevated level of stress, and actually, lead to an overwhelming feeling of dread.
3. Choose Your Festivities Wisely
The holidays can present a unique set of potential triggers that you may not face during any other time:
- Any festivities or gatherings where alcohol is being consumed. It’s well-documented that alcohol consumption increases during the winter holidays in the U.S., most notably around New Year’s Eve.
- Friends and families who may have encouraged drinking and drug use may reappear around the holidays.
Instead of risking it and hoping for the best, it may be better to make sacrifices during this time of year. Choose which events and gatherings to attend wisely, based on the level of temptation you expect to feel. Don’t be afraid to request that some gatherings are “substance-free”. If the other attendees truly love you, they’ll be happy to reduce temptation in order to support your recovery.
4. Plan Ahead for the Sights and Sounds
Many addicts report negative memories of past holiday seasons in which they made decisions while under the influence that they feel shame about. This is common, even for those who haven’t undergone stages of addiction treatment. It may be impossible to avoid every reminder of your past, but take steps to limit your interaction with people and places that bring back the strongest memories of your addiction.
If you feel ashamed about interactions with family or friends, it can help to bring these memories out in the open, however difficult it might be. Sometimes painful memories can be erased by making sober amends and starting fresh.
5. Keep Your Sober Support System Close By
It’s important that no matter how stressful the holidays may be for you — and your stresses may not be the same as others — you don’t disconnect from your support system during the holidays.
Whether your support system comes in the form of a 12-step program, a Sober Skills community or any other type of recovery group, discussing the temptation to use drugs or alcohol with people in a similar situation as you can give you the strength you need to stay sober, even when the stress builds.
Let FHE Health Help
FHE Health has a variety of resources for continuing recovery as part of our Alumni programming. For help during the holidays or any other time of year, explore the programs and resources we have available and contact us for more information.