By Haley Kennedy, Recovery Coach – 12.8.2022 –  

For some people, the end of the year brings images of happy families gathered around tables full of turkey dinners, or around Christmas trees by cozy fires while holiday music fills the room. For others, the holidays can be a much darker and more difficult time – a time of family conflict, financial strain, loneliness, grief, and seasonal affective disorder. If you find the holidays to be an emotionally difficult time, you are certainly not alone. And if you are recovering from substance use disorder, this broad spectrum of holiday emotions can challenge even your best intentions for recovery. 

Though the risk of returning to use runs high during the holidays, it is not inevitable. If you are in recovery, there are steps you can take to stay healthy and safe. Becoming aware of potentially triggering situations and knowing how to prepare for them can help minimize your risk and allow you to truly enjoy your holiday season. 

Common Holiday Triggers 

The holiday season can be a triggering time for many reasons. Knowing your potential holiday triggers is of utmost importance in any stage of recovery. 

  1. Changes to Your Routine 

People get time off from work, travel to see their families, spend time preparing for the holidays, and often don’t adhere to their typical routines during the holiday season. Your exercise routine, healthy sleeping patterns, and even your support group meeting attendance may fall by the wayside. All these disruptions can put serious stress on your recovery. 

  1. Holiday Parties 

The holiday season is a time of celebration and gatherings can be overloaded with alcohol. The sheer amount of alcohol present at some holiday get-togethers can be overwhelming, especially if you’re in recovery. 

  1. Family Stress 

The holiday season is often about spending time with family members. If you have a strained relationship with your family, spending a significant amount of time with them could cause stress and even symptoms of depression or anxiety. Seeing your family could also lead to feelings of guilt and shame about the effect your past behaviors had on your loved ones. All these emotions can be triggering, especially if you used substances to escape them in the past. 

Tips to Avoid Returning to Use 

The holidays can be challenging, but they don’t have to result in using. Here are ways to prepare for stressful holiday situations and give yourself the best gift this holiday season: Continued Recovery! 

  1. Have a Pre-Planned Response 

The holidays can be especially stressful for those recovering from an alcohol use disorder because alcohol is such a central part of many celebrations. If you expect to be offered a drink, think about how you will respond. A simple yet firm “no, thank you” is often enough, especially since long explanations and vague excuses can present more opportunity to give in. 

Additionally, you can:   

  • Keep it simple: “I’m not drinking tonight” or “I have to get an early start to my day tomorrow.” 
  • Don’t say a word: Keep a non-alcoholic drink with you during the party. This way, whenever someone tries to offer you alcohol, you can simply hold up your beverage, indicating that you’re not ready for another drink.  
  • Say yes: “I would love a drink! Can I get water with lemon or a Coca-Cola?” Very few people will press anything alcoholic on you, but if they do, simply say, “Not right now, thank you, but a Coke would really hit the spot.” 
  • Try humor: Remember, you don’t need to announce your recovery, unless you want to. Depending on how comfortable you feel about the subject, you may decide to just tell your truth and be done with it. “No thanks—even the top shelf booze isn’t tempting enough to make me throw away my recovery!” 

If you have a strategy prepared in advance, this situation will be much easier to navigate. 

** There is also no rule saying that you have to attend every party you’re invited to. Your health and stability are far more valuable than one night of holiday celebration. 

  1. Bring a Friend 

If you can’t get out of a party or other get-together that you’re worried about attending, ask a close friend or your sponsor to accompany you. Discuss your concerns ahead of time and make concrete plans for how you will both respond. Bringing someone who understands your recovery and who can help you hold yourself accountable can make you feel stronger and more supported. 

** If you are traveling for the holidays, reach out to people you are close to and explain to them that you may need extra support during the holidays. Ask them if it would be okay to contact them every now and then. You can even ask them to check on you. 

  1. Create an Exit Strategy 

You can’t always predict how a situation will play out or how you will feel. Having an exit strategy for potentially stressful holiday situations is essential — maybe your babysitter needs to get home, you have to wake up early for an appointment, or there is nobody at home to walk the dogs. Or arrange for a friend to call during the event to add some credence to your “out.” Having a Plan B ready allows you to be able to gracefully bow out if needed. You can even exit with an “Irish goodbye” — when you sneak out without telling anyone. While this may seem rude, it might be necessary if you feel as if your recovery is in jeopardy. 

  1. Look Up Meetings in Your Area 

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the holiday season. Confiding in or leaning on others who are also in recovery can help you relieve some of that stress. During the holidays, AA continues to hold meetings. In fact, many groups have seasonal parties where food and fellowship abound, and speakers talk of gratitude and of the real spirit of giving that is outlined in Step 12. If you’re traveling, plan to attend a meeting wherever you will be and plan in advance. Try to find a local meeting long before you arrive and build it into your holiday schedule. 

For a safe and happy holiday, it’s important to be aware of these triggers, and strategies to protect yourself. If it all gets to be too much, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. 

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