Medically Reviewed By: Dr. Patricia Sullivan, MD MPH on 7/04/2022
How to Stay Sober Throughout the Holidays
The truth is holidays can be stressful, even more, if you are trying to stay sober. It can feel overwhelming to get into the holiday spirit without getting into the holiday “spirits,” so what can you do? This article discusses relapse, holidays, and staying sober at family gatherings.
Why Are the Holidays Hard for People Who Are Trying to Stay Sober?
The holidays are a time for family, celebration, and gratitude. But unfortunately, those battling addiction must navigate staying sober during the holidays. Alcohol and other intoxicants are popular holiday staples, and it can be hard to navigate how to enjoy the moment without risking their sobriety.
Sometimes families don’t understand the nature of addiction, and sometimes people underestimate the risk of relapse. But overall, no one wants addiction to be why they miss out on valuable memories with their loved ones.
Are You Struggling to Stay Sober this Holiday Season?
If you or someone you know struggles to stay sober during the holidays, advice and support are a phone call away.
We can help you or your loved one find a professional option that will provide you with coping strategies to equip you with what you need to handle the stress in the future.
What Do Families Need to Understand About Addiction?
Knowledge is a powerful tool for creating a holiday season that everyone can enjoy. Your family may have discussed addiction, but knowing how it works on every level can help you prepare a safe space for your loved one.
Addiction is a complex disease, and understanding how it impacts the individual is vital to understanding how it can affect your entire family.
If your loved one faces addiction, you may not realize that addiction is not a lack of willpower. Instead, it is a sickness that your loved one struggles to overcome.
What Happens to Someone When They Struggle with Addiction?
Drugs and alcohol have dramatic effects on the brain and body. When drugs or alcohol are misused, they can completely rewire how the user looks, behaves, and feels.
According to DrugAbuse.gov, this is what happens to the addicted individual’s brain:
“Our brains are wired to increase the odds that we will repeat pleasurable activities. The neurotransmitter dopamine is central to this. Drugs produce much larger surges of dopamine, powerfully reinforcing the connection between consumption of the drug, the resulting pleasure, and all the external cues linked to the experience. Large surges of dopamine “teach” the brain to seek drugs at the expense of other, healthier goals and activities.”
This robust process spills into every aspect of the sufferer’s life, and most of their fight is invisible. As a result, people battling substance use disorder typically get caught in a toxic cycle that makes everyday pleasures far less appealing.
While in recovery, many must find new ways to navigate core relationships, like family. Many individuals’ environments, including those relationships, can become a trigger, and holiday time is an excellent example of that. While it can be difficult for the family, at every stage, a robust support system is a necessity.
What Are Triggers?
One primary term to understand as the holiday season approaches are triggers. These are the main culprits why addicts may feel immense stress around the holiday season. Triggers are simply anything that urges you to use. According to DrugAbuse.gov, triggers may include things such as:
- Being in withdrawal from drug use
- Experiencing stressful life events
- Seeing people, places, or something that remind a person of drugs, such as returning to a site connected to past drug use
It is easy to see why huge events like holidays can be a source of triggers. Perhaps your family does a lot of drinking, or you have another family member with untreated addiction.
These situations can be a challenging time for someone in recovery. Many triggers link to emotional lows like depression, isolation, and exhaustion. Furthermore, these are relatively common triggers for relapse.
What is a Relapse?
Generally, relapse is falling back into the addiction. Triggers do not always lead to relapse, but they are an easy gateway. Relapse is typically a means to escape from the negative emotions someone might face. These cyclic behaviors are part of the vicious cycle of addiction.
Drugs and alcohol are so powerful that if a trigger turns into a relapse, the brain wants to repeat that negative behavior repeatedly.
The problem is that you have lowered your tolerance once you have entered recovery. So that decreased tolerance means your body is ill-equipped to handle the same amount of the substance you had when you first became addicted.
This decreased tolerance is what can lead to a life-threatening overdose. As you may notice, stress is the umbrella that all triggers live under; now, let’s learn what you can do to manage it during the holidays.
Coping with Stress During the Holidays
An essential tool you will need for staying sober during the holidays is a plan. Whether it is an office party or Christmas dinner, going in unprepared leaves you vulnerable to triggers.
When you have a plan, you can balance enjoying the moment with protecting the sobriety you worked so hard to achieve. Preparing as much as possible will be far less stressful than being hit with unexpected obstacles.
Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize
Another significant way to minimize stress during the holiday season is to keep your priorities in order. Remember that above all else, recovery is the greatest gift you can give to yourself and your family.
As an article by Harvard Health puts it,
“Recovery, if about anything, is about connecting with other people. It is about far more than just the absence of drugs or alcohol. Addiction slowly robs you of your relationships, as you become emotionally obsessed with your drug of choice. With recovery comes a blossoming of human connection, interaction, meaning, and hope.”
You are not missing out on any bonding or connection by remaining sober. Even if you feel out of place at points, you have to remember the bigger picture. It hurts but sometimes, remembering the lows can help you see past the urges.
Tips for Staying Sober During Family Gatherings
Now, here are some specific ways you can minimize the risk of relapse during the holiday season:
- Learn to say no. Politely decline drinks when offered without feeling like you have to explain yourself.
- Have an alternative. If you know certain plains may be particularly triggering, opt for healthier options. Examples could be anything from volunteering to attending a holiday lights festival.
- Stay in touch with your support network. Stay in communication with the people there to help you stay sober, whether friends, sponsors, or other family members.
- Stick to and even increase the number of recovery meetings you attend.
- Continue to take care of your mind, body, and spirit. Self-care will help you find balance and have the foundation to focus on avoiding triggers during the holidays.
What Can Families Do to Help?
Now, families also should know how to navigate how they can make their relatives stay sober during the holidays. One important thing for family members of addicts to remember is that you cannot possibly carry the weight of their addiction on your shoulders.
However, you can take small measures to create a comfortable environment for everyone. It is far easier to plan than cope with the stress of watching your loved one relapse.
According to the Louisiana Department of Health, these are some great tips you can follow to ensure everyone enjoys the holiday season:
- Make the party entertainment, games, conversation, and family focus, not alcohol.
- Choose non-alcoholic beverage options.
- Provide healthy, delicious foods to slow the effects of alcohol and avoid salty foods that encourage people to drink more.
- Require those serving drinks to check the ID of anyone who appears to be under the age of 30 to ensure minors are not drinking.
- Don’t serve drinks towards the end of the party.
Another effective tool your family can use is honest communication. Do not hesitate to ask your recovering family member what their expectations or needs are.
You have boundaries, too, though. If you are not in a place to create an environment that will not trigger your loved one, then you may have to make alternative plans.
With prioritized communication in advance, you can ensure that your recovering loved one feels heard and supported. Plus, it allows you to adjust your planning accordingly.
Lastly, you will also want to ensure the rest of your family and guests are on the same page. Prioritizing the safety and comfortability of everyone means all guests can feel welcome and safe to celebrate.
Enjoy Your Family and Your Holidays
Now that you have some tips on staying sober during the holidays, you can focus on the music, joy, and memories made in this season. When the bond and moments shared are prioritized, it will be easy to avoid things taking a turn for the worse.
For those early in recovery, though, it can naturally be a very challenging time. If this is an issue your family cannot handle, professional help can be highly beneficial.
In the grand scheme, the more you can involve your family in the journey, the more success you will find. But unfortunately, people cannot help if they do not know how to, even if they desire to.
The road to recovery is full of ups and downs for the person in recovery and those they love, but at the end of the tunnel is the greatest reward. It is a battle that will leave you and your family more vigorous than ever.
Consider contacting a rehab specialist to be connected to information and local resources.
You and your family are not alone in this. Seek help today and let every holiday going forward be healthy, happy, and stress-free.
- Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction: Drugs and the Brain | NIDA (nih.gov)
- Navigating the holidays in recovery – Harvard Health
- Parents & Educators | National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) (nih.gov)
- Celebrating the Holidays Safely: Avoiding Substance Abuse at Holiday Parties | La Dept. of Health
- What Happens When I Blackout? – Better Help Addiction Care
- The Effects of Second-hand Drinking – Better Help Addiction Care
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