It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Bells are ringing. People are singing. The whole world seems infused with holiday cheer. But when you’re in recovery, these festive weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year can feel, well, not very celebratory at all.
The fact is that maintaining your sobriety during the holidays can be difficult for a host of reasons. To be sure, for many of us, the holidays can feel like a time of abandoned revelry, like the one time of the year when it’s okay to give yourself permission to cut loose and do whatever it is you want to do.
Often, though, the challenges of staying sober over the holidays go much deeper than that. For many of us, beneath the veneer of glad tidings of the season lie a sadness and pain that, when we can no longer deny them, we try to escape through the temporary oblivion of drugs or alcohol.
Yes, relapse during the holidays is a real and present danger, but it does not have to be your destiny. It is, indeed, possible to make it through the holiday season with your sobriety intact. You just need to arm yourself with proven strategies for celebrating sober. We’ll show you how!
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
For centuries, the holidays have been a time of excess and indulgence, a time to enjoy a break from the daily grind and let your inner hedonist run riot. And, turns out, the more things change, the more they stay the same. We modern men and women of the 21st century certainly still know how to overindulge once those holiday lights start flashing and the booze starts flowing.
Binging on drugs and, in particular, on alcohol during the holidays is such a cultural truism, in fact, that healthcare providers have come to expect an influx of substance-related illnesses and injuries during the holidays. They even have a name for the rush of alcohol-induced cardiac emergencies engendered by binge drinking during public holidays. They call it “Holiday Heart Syndrome” (1, 2).
What all this signifies, ultimately, is that during the holidays, the environmental and social cues that can trigger your cravings are likely to be more prolific and more pronounced than perhaps at any other time of year. Indeed, there is significant evidence to suggest that drug and alcohol cravings in people who have detoxified from drugs of dependency are often conditioned responses, the result of neurobiological responses to specific sensory environments associated with drug and/or alcohol use (3, 4, 5, 6).
What this means, in other words, is that the alcohol and drug-lubricated environment of the holidays is almost inevitably going to stimulate your brain to want to use. But you can avoid relapsing by learning how to anticipate, recognize, and respond to the neurobiological responses in healthy ways. More on that to come!
Home For the Holidays
Unfortunately, the cultural and environmental triggers for drug and alcohol use during the holidays aren’t the only challenges you must be prepared to face if you want to make it through the season clean and sober. Perhaps the most formidable threats are also often the most painful ones.
The reality is that addiction doesn’t emerge in a vacuum. There is usually a host of contributing factors that give rise to, sustain, and exacerbate the disease. And whether we like it or not, our families often play a significant role in that process. The family systems model speaks to the impact that addiction has on the entire family unit, including the undeniable fact that addiction often begins to define family roles and relationships.
Thus, though your family may well be one of the most important reasons why you entered–and remained–in recovery in the first place, reentry into the family home and environment can also pose a significant threat if you don’t have a plan. For instance, you may quickly find yourself slipping back into old, dysfunctional emotional and behavioral patterns that are quite simply antithetical to your recovery in general and to your new sober identity in particular (7, 8, 9).
The challenges of maintaining your sobriety while cultivating a healthier family dynamic during the already stressful holiday season can be especially significant if you are also dealing with unresolved trauma. For instance, a history of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) may not only have contributed to the development of your addiction in the first place, but it can also increase your risk of relapse (10, 11, 12, 13). This is especially true if the traumatic event(s) involve family members, environments, or situations with which you must re-engage during the holidays.
Sober Celebrations/Celebrating Sobriety
No matter how enormous the external temptations, the social pressures, and the emotional compulsions may feel, you do have it within you to stay clean during the holidays. And, no, that doesn’t mean you have to withdraw to your house, turn off the lights, draw the shades, wrap yourself in a blanket and wait for the New Year to come.
You can, in fact, celebrate great times with the people you love most in the world. And, as a bonus, you get to do this without waking the next day to a world of regret and no memory of what transpired the night before.
That doesn’t mean you can just settle back into the same self-destructive holiday rituals you embraced when you were using. To maintain your precious sobriety, you may very well have to find a strategy for going against the norm, for charting your own healthy path through the season. Below are some clear, specific steps you can use to help you celebrate sober:
- Keep Working the Program: Just like any other disease, addiction doesn’t take a break just because it’s a holiday, and that means that you can’t stop working your recovery program either. Many recovery programs include apps or online portals to stay connected. There are AA and OA meetings in every town at every hour of every day, including holidays. And if you don’t want to attend in person, you can always jump into an online meeting with the touch of a button. The key is to maintain contact with your support system whenever and wherever your merrymaking may take you.
- Have a plan: Just because you’re in recovery doesn’t mean you have to renounce all earthly pleasures. You can still attend those holiday parties with friends, family, and colleagues.
The key, though, is to have a plan for enjoying yourself sober. At a minimum, you’ll want to know how to best respond when someone offers you a drink. Remember that you’re in no way obligated to discuss your sobriety with a perfect stranger unless you choose to. A simple, “No thanks. I’ll have a soda instead,” should suffice. Or you could simply head them off at the pass by keeping a drink of club soda, ginger ale, or water in your hand.
- Practice self-care: There’s no question that the holidays can be draining, both physically and emotionally. When you’re depleted, whether in body, mind, or spirit, not only are the addiction triggers likely to feel stronger, but your resistance to them is going to be weaker.
So, no matter how busy you are or how disrupted your ordinary routine may be, it’s imperative to prioritize physical, mental, and spiritual self-care at all times. Stay hydrated. Ensure you’re getting proper nutrition amid all the delectable treats of the seasons. Keep physically active and make a commitment to get consistent, healthy sleep.
While you’re at it, pay attention to your mental and spiritual health. Ensure that you’re getting away to relax, decompress, and enjoy a bit of solitude when you need it. Consider journaling to help you purge your anxieties, resist and replace negative thought patterns with healthier and more affirming ones, articulate your goals and priorities, and express gratitude. Dealing with your emotions in concrete and productive ways can help you transform your mindset and shift your perspective in a more positive direction when the chaos and drama of the holidays threaten to get you down.
- Keep reinforcements on standby: No one makes it through the disease of addiction alone. That’s especially true during the holidays. So make sure that you have your crew close at hand, literally and figuratively, when you need them.
A “rescue call” from a friend pretending to be in need can be a great way to politely exit a party when the temptations are getting to be a bit too much. A phone session with your therapist before an event or meeting that might trigger you can help you maintain the motivation you need to stay clean. A group meeting after a party, dinner, or reunion that has you on edge, depressed, or craving can give you the perspective you need to not react impulsively and self-destructively.
In other words, a clear action strategy and the support of loved ones, peers, and
professionals will empower you to navigate the holidays with gratitude, determination, and joy–and there are no better tools for preventing relapse than these!
How Bayshore Can Help
At Bayshore, we understand that addiction recovery is about far more than not using drugs or alcohol. We recognize that addiction is a disease that has deep roots in physiology, in psychology, in experience, and in the environment. That means sobriety must also operate across these fundamental domains as well.
That is why, at Bayshore, our multidisciplinary team of physicians, psychiatrists, counselors, life coaches, and addiction recovery experts focus on the individual, not just the addiction. Because of this, we are committed to partnering with our clients to find holistic solutions to address the varied root causes of their dependency and to cultivate a lifestyle that supports long-term sobriety. This includes working with clients and families to anticipate and mitigate the inevitable and unique challenges that arise during the holiday season.
Contact the caring team at Bayshore to discuss how we can help you or someone you love to remain clean and sober through the holidays and all year long!