What is the Connection Between Holiday Stress and Addiction?
Each year, the holiday season brings friends and family members together to celebrate each other’s company. However, holidays can be an equally stressful time, where more family time can be emotional and those without close family/friends may feel increased loneliness, isolation, and depression. Many people find substance use as a way of coping, which is particularly dangerous for those in recovery. From November to January, those struggling with addiction try to put their condition aside to participate in the celebrations. Research shows that stress can bring past behavior to the surface, where normal issues of money, family, and general stress are amplified for those with addiction. Isolation from close friends/family and attempts to hide one’s problem can result in stress that intensifies addictive behaviors. If those in recovery have not processed past family issues (with the family or a therapist), the potential for relapse rises. These familiar places/situations can trigger many underlying issues at the root of one’s addiction. The house, family members, familial history, or past abuse can trigger cravings and old patterns where the trigger may be more powerful than re-experiencing the drug itself.
How Do I Prepare for the Stress of Family/Friend Gatherings?
We typically have certain expectations/desired outcomes for the holidays, where our expectations do not always meet reality. These unmet expectations can lead to frustration, stress, and despair among relatives. Since we usually know of the potential problems that might come up with our families, it is crucial not to “wing it”. For most situations, the key is practice. If you know your family will ask uncomfortable questions or bring up triggering events, practice your reactions/answers and do not feel obligated to discuss every detail of your recovery. Having someone who can assist in practicing can be helpful as you can test out different answers and see how they feel. If you’re likely to encounter people/places/things associated with your addiction, role-play those situations too and plan your approach to avoiding/refusing them. Making specific, positive activities for alone time can help with healthy distractions in these situations even if they may seem uncomfortable at first. While it will not be exactly the same in the real situation, being prepared can condition the body/brain’s natural stress responses. It will sound less awkward and you will have already experienced some of the related emotions.
How Can My Loved Ones Help Me During the Holidays?
In recovery, trusted family members can be a great source of support in relapse prevention, especially during the holidays. Many people do not take the act of recovery seriously, where it can be a matter of life and death for those struggling with addiction. Because the problem affects the entire family unit, all members should be part of the recovery. Family can help in planning ahead, designating drivers, and being there for support during cravings. Maintaining communication with sponsors/support groups is also important. It is especially vital to stay connected and be an open, safe channel of communication. In many ways, relapse prevention should begin before the holidays, where the family should identify what can be done to make the person in recovery feel most comfortable, what challenges may arise, and if there will be any triggers for cravings. The “most joyous time of the year” should remain joyful, but families must balance being vigilant about the threat of relapse with enjoying the holiday season.
What Happens If I Do Relapse?
If a relapse does occur, it must be confronted and action must be taken. Despite the extent of your holiday challenges, you will not be prepared without adequate self-care, including getting sufficient sleep, eating a well-balanced, nutritious meals, engaging in regular exercise, and taking time for relaxation. It is important to take relapse seriously, but avoid overreacting and becoming engulfed in crushing guilt and shame. The steps to take include contacting your sponsor, attending support group meetings, and working with your treatment team (doctor, therapist, etc.) at Right Path to address the incident and determine the next steps.
How Can I Plan for Holiday Relapse Prevention?
As we have seen, it is important to remember that holiday stress and relapse are quite common. Thus, your top priority during the holiday season is to take care of yourself. Oftentimes, we place others at the top of our list, but we must keep our recovery first and foremost during this stressful season. We are ultimately in control of and responsible for ourselves, where making a list of the things most helpful to your recovery can be essential in relapse prevention. For stressful situations, those in recovery should assemble a “recovery kit” to take with them when joining holiday celebrations.
Here are some helpful tips to get you started:
Know Your Triggers
It is important to know your triggers/warning signs of relapse and how to manage them. The most common triggers are found in the acronym HALT – hungry, angry, lonely, and tired. By taking care of yourself mentally and physically, you can defend yourself against these triggers.
Evaluate the Risks
Early in recovery, high-risk situations should be avoided and more time should be spent in low-risk situations. Further on in recovery, rely on your plan for medium or high-risk situations, such as driving yourself so you can leave when you’re ready.
Focus on finding healthy tasks to preoccupy your mind from potential urges/cravings, such as helping the host, bringing a friend with you who does not use substances, or even volunteering at your local shelter to practice gratitude. Cravings typically last about 20 minutes and are often physical, so tasking your body with something else can help push them away.
Manage the Stress of Celebrating
Substances are often a way to cope with stress, where it is important to keep in mind that it is simply impossible to attend every event/gathering. When in recovery, you can slow down and be selective in how you live, including the way you celebrate the holidays. Choosing those most events important to you and planning in advanced will keep things simple/less stressful.
Focus on Being Good to Yourself
Focusing on ourselves can reduce the stress associated with focusing on others. The way your family celebrates holidays may cause you distress, especially in recovery, but we should not try to force expectations on one another. Accepting your powerlessness over others can prevent further stress/relapse. Instead, take it easy and show yourself compassion. You are not alone in any depression or isolation you feel as many people feel the same way – you’re only human. Remember that you are capable of handling your emotions without using and that whatever you are feeling will pass. Do whatever you need to take it easy – taking a bath, eating your favorite dessert, or engaging in any other positive activity you enjoy.
Rely on Your Support Systems
Plan your support ahead of the holidays, utilizing support groups, sponsors, or friends in recovery. Make sure to limit time in stressful situations and with difficult people. Setting up support meetings ahead of time ensures that you are covered in case of a crisis. For support groups, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence offers a list of organizations.
Have an Escape/Back-Up Plan
If a negative situation arises, such as an argument amongst relatives, we may feel tempted to use and will need to take preventative action. Try to avoid vulnerable situations whenever possible – if you know your aunt will offer you a drink or criticize your recovery, avoid her. Create backup plans such as other events, parking where there is no chance of being blocked in, arriving/leaving early, and calling people in the moment for support. If you feel uncomfortable or feel the need to use, leaving and doing whatever is needed to maintain sobriety is most important.
Remember that Prevention is Ongoing
Finally, it is significant to remember that people can be most vulnerable after the holidays. Stress and resentment built up over the holiday season can lead to rationalization – I “deserve” to use. Addiction can be just as powerful the day after a holiday as it is the day before, where relapse prevention is an ongoing process. The stronger our plan is, the better prepared we will be in the face of a crisis.