Although the holidays are supposed to bring feelings of joy and togetherness, they are often challenging for people working toward sobriety. You may face direct challenges, such as being around alcohol, tobacco, or drugs at holiday parties, or you may feel negative emotions such as shame, loneliness, loss, and anxiety as you are confronted with potentially triggering holiday rituals, scents, and behavior patterns.
As the holidays approach, it is crucial you put a plan in place to help navigate challenges that may affect your sobriety. By identifying holiday triggers that stir up problematic emotions and outlining actions to take that help set you up for success, you can maintain your commitment to sobriety over the holiday season.
Identify Your Triggers
When developing a plan to keep you on the right track during the holidays, it is beneficial to identify potential triggers. Triggers are any situations, people, scents, rituals, or behavior patterns that set off your urge to use an addictive substance.
When you experience a trigger, it sets off a cascade of adverse emotions that can cause you to revert to unhealthy coping behaviors.
Common holiday triggers for those in recovery include troubling family dynamics and behavior patterns and alcohol at holiday parties. Changes to your routine can also be triggering, especially if your predictable daily routine helps you create structure and stay sober.
If you do not celebrate with others during the holidays, you may feel triggered by feelings of loneliness. Loneliness can bring up feelings of shame, sadness, anger, or boredom, which are challenging to recovery.
Dealing With Holiday Triggers
The best way to maintain your sobriety over the holidays is to develop a plan ahead of time that provides you with a healthy option when faced with holiday triggers.
A plan that works:
- Anticipates possible triggers
- Provides alternative actions and pre-formed responses
- Is easy to implement
- Reflects your commitment to sobriety
Plans that are vague, hard to follow, or allow you an excuse to relapse are not ideal. For example, if your plan is only to have one drink at the holiday party or volunteer as a sober driver, you will likely set yourself up for a break in sobriety.
What’s Your Plan?
As you plan for the holidays, it helps to consider several ideas to stay sober when faced with triggers. Try the following actions, questions, and responses during the holidays to stay committed to your recovery.
Ask questions and prepare accordingly
When attending a holiday gathering, ask questions that help you prepare. Find out if alcohol will be served and, if so, what kind. Inquire about friends or family members who are attending the party so you can prepare yourself for potential tensions and temptations.
Actionable preparations can include:
- Determine your boundaries with family
- Bring your own non-alcoholic drinks to enjoy
- Repeat words of commitment to yourself throughout the event
- Set a time limit on how long you’ll stay
- Tell a sober friend where you’re going and reach out if needed
- Bring a sober friend with you to the event
- Talk to your MAT doctor in advance
Put an exit strategy in place
Having an exit strategy in place for holiday gatherings gives you the power to leave whenever the situation becomes triggering to you. Without an exit strategy, you may feel trapped and unable to leave if you begin experiencing anxiety or stress.
A successful exit strategy includes driving your car to the gathering. This ensures you do not have to wait on anyone else when you are ready to go. If you drive your car, make sure to park where you can easily leave. If you cannot drive yourself, make sure you have access to a cab or ride-share option, as well as funds to pay for the ride.
If you are worried about offending the host of the party, let them know what your plan is ahead of time. This can help you implement your exit strategy without feeling guilty for leaving in the middle of their event.
Part of planning for the holidays is to prepare responses when people ask you if you want to drink or smoke or ask you about sobriety or other personal issues.
Decide on a few short, straight-to-the-point phrases such as – thanks, but I’m not drinking tonight or sobriety is good, but I’d rather hear about your… – to politely change the subject or turn down a tempting offer. Preparing a response keeps you from thinking on the spot and reinforces your commitment to sobriety.
Pay attention to your emotions
When planning for the holidays, it is vitally important that you pay attention to your emotions. In the cycle of addiction, emotional triggers are a driving force behind the urge to relapse.
Make it a point to tune in with yourself and feel whatever you feel during the season. When negative emotions like shame, guilt, anger, or sadness start to feel overwhelming, call a friend, mentor, or sober buddy and talk it out rather than turn to a substance.
Attend a support group meeting in the area
If you celebrate the holidays outside, away from where you normally attend support group meetings, find a support group near where you’ll be staying. Attend at least one meeting per week to keep up your commitment to sobriety while on holiday vacation. This helps you stay on track and connect with others who are facing similar struggles over the season.
Volunteering is a great way to spend the holidays when in recovery. Through volunteering, you take the focus off your triggers and put it on serving others. Service in recovery plays a major part in feeling connected to others, preventing feelings of loneliness or hopelessness during the holidays.
Start new traditions
Part of planning for the holidays can also include starting new traditions. Spend Christmas with people from your recovery group or take a vacation with a trusted sober friend or partner.
You could also start a new tradition by bringing a different beverage or food to your family gathering to replace addictive substances normally served. If you control how you spend your holidays, you are less likely to experience the negative emotions that trigger you to use drugs or alcohol.
Stress and anxiety are common relapse triggers. Social events and family gatherings can be intense sources of stress during the holidays.
Develop some stress-busting strategies to help you avoid the urge to use. Excusing yourself for 5-10 minutes for a quick meditation session in your car or going for a short walk around the block can help you manage any stressful feelings you have around the holidays.
You don’t need to attend every holiday party and festive event. Rank each event as low, medium, or high risk, depending on your stage of recovery. For example, a work party with an open bar would be a high-risk event for someone in the early stages of recovery from alcohol addiction.
If you feel like a mid- to high-risk event could cause a relapse, politely decline the event invitation and spend some time with a supportive friend or at a group meeting instead.
Put Yourself First During the Holidays
The holidays bring unique challenges to people in recovery from alcohol or substance abuse. Whether you are in active recovery with an addiction treatment program or are looking for ways to maintain long-term sobriety this holiday season, it is important to remember that the best way to stay sober over the holidays is to anticipate your triggers and plan ahead.
Native of Moldova, Dr. Zhitar is Board Certified in Addiction Medicine as well as Internal Medicine and completed his training at UPMC Shadyside, Pittsburgh, PA in 2000.