Staying sober through the holiday

sober holiday

Staying Sober Through the Holiday

The holiday season is upon us! For many, this means a time of celebration, joy, and happiness to be spent with friends and family. However, for recovering drug users and alcoholics, the holidays can also present a challenge. 

The excitement and celebration of the holiday season can be a trigger for people who struggle with substance abuse. This, compounded with the fact that some people may feel pressured to be more socially available and ‘at their best,’ can make it difficult for some people to remain sober during the holiday season.

But fear not! There are a number of things that you can do to help yourself stay sober through the holiday. This article provides you with a number of different ideas that will help you cruise through Christmas without a relapse.

Why Would the Holiday Season Create a Risk for Substance Abuse?

The holiday season is a festive time, and where there are festivities, there are often substances of abuse. This alone is one of the most prominent risk factors presented to people in recovery during the holiday season. However, there are far more things to consider than the simple availability of substances.

These are some of the most prominent considerations. Later on in the article we will discuss some strategies that you can employ to manage these different issues.

Increased Availability of Substances

As mentioned, substances are often available more often during the holiday season. This is especially true of alcohol, which is commonly drunk on holiday occasions. Christmas-themed drinks, such as the classic rum and eggnog, often encourage people to drink more than they would throughout the rest of the year.

Christmas Eve, the day of Christmas itself, and New Year’s Eve are all occasions that often lead to drinking. Alcohol use tends to increase the likelihood of a drug relapse. This means that people who are in recovery must be extra cautious during these holidays and take steps to protect themselves from the possibility of relapse.

New Year’s Eve is one of the booziest holidays of the year. Furthermore, the consumption of alcohol on this holiday isn’t always a positive one. 

People tend to binge drink on New Year’s Eve, a practice which involves drinking 5 or more drinks in a single night. Nearly fifty percent of all men and 40 percent of women admitted to binge drinking to help celebrate the new year. Of these, 27.3% of men and 16.7% of women reported that they drank so much that they had a hard time remembering their New Year’s celebration.

The same site reports that, during the winter holidays, men drink an average of 3.6 drinks per day and women drink an average of 2.7. They report that 7.7% of men have had a blackout during a winter holiday celebration, compared to 5.9% of women.

Holiday-related binge drinking aggravates the risk of alcohol-induced side effects and can lead to havoc. People who are in recovery may have a difficult time remaining sober if they are surrounded by people who are obviously intoxicated. (Or, on the other hand, they may be reminded as to why they have decided to stop drinking). 

Family Pressures

Another issue that some people may find during their holiday season is an increase in family pressure. This can occur for a number of reasons and is, of course, entirely dependent upon the individual and their relationship to their family members.

Some people regularly spend time with their families throughout the year and find no difference during the holiday season. Other people spend very little time with their families and find that the pressure to spend time with them during the holiday season can be uncomfortable or strenuous.

If you have a strained relationship with your family and you’re being encouraged or made to spend time with them, this can cause serious stress. Stress is one of the leading causes of relapse and, given that alcohol is often readily available at holiday festivities, this can create a significant challenge for someone in recovery.

Financial Stress

Christmas is a typical Hallmark holiday, and as such, the giving of gifts is often encouraged. In fact, gift giving has become entirely commercialized and many people find that they become stressed out because they feel constant pressure in this regard.

This can be a serious challenge for people who are struggling financially. If you have a large social group, for example, but you’re currently having trouble making financial ends meet, you may feel a certain financial stress. 

Being unable to afford gifts for friends or family members may also contribute to feelings of shame or unworthiness. It is not uncommon for some people to compare themselves to other, wealthier friends or family members who are able to spend more money on lavish gifts.

These unwanted feelings can have an impact on one’s self-esteem. In an effort to control these unwanted feelings during the holiday season, some people may find themselves considering drugs or alcohol.

High Expectations

During the holiday season people are often exposed to higher-than-average expectations. These expectations can come from a number of sources.

  • Your family may place high expectations on you in regards to your manner, dress, and activity during the holiday season.

  • Society often pressures people to buy gifts and marketing may make people feel guilty if they don’t opt to buy certain gifts.

  • You may put pressure on yourself, believing that you have unrealistic expectations to live up to.

All of these issues can compound to create significant stress which, as we have mentioned, is one of the leading causes of relapse.

Feelings of Isolation

The holidays are a period during which many people seem to be ‘on’ all the time. There is a great deal of social activity and people seem to remain constantly engaged, focused, energetic and enthused. 

However, not everyone is able to maintain this facade. This is especially true for people in recovery who have previously used substances in order to help them manage social anxiety or self-esteem issues. 

Being constantly exposed to groups of socially active and energetic individuals can cause feelings of isolation in people who have trouble being socially savvy. Or, you might actually choose to physically isolate yourself by retreating to your room or a quiet space during social gatherings.

People who lack strong connections with their family may also feel particularly isolated during the holiday season. Being unable to participate in festivities in the way that is portrayed in the media or in movies may lead to someone feeling uncomfortable or ashamed.

Either of these experiences can cultivate feelings of loneliness and unworthiness. The pressure to socialize may encourage you to have a drink or to relapse simply in order to socialize with your friends or family.

Disrupted Schedules

The holiday season is a time of merriment, indeed – but to successfully plan for this merriment one must put in a great deal of effort, time, and energy. Oftentimes this requires a commitment that is greater than one can achieve given their current schedule. 

You might find that you need to take time off work in order to make all of your holiday plans lineup. If you’re not able to get time off, then you’ll likely find yourself stressed out as you hustle to make ends meet during the busy holiday season. 

The approaching winter holidays also tend to create a surplus of work as managers and business owners prepare things for the holiday closure. Deadlines and heavier workloads can create stress.

Furthermore, people may find that their social or mental support workers are taking time off for the holiday season. During a time of great stress, such as the winter holidays, one might find that they’re more in need of their therapist or counselor only to find that they’re unavailable!

In fact, the holiday season can affect schedules and routines of all sorts!

  • Healthy eating routines might be disrupted due to the availability of holiday sweets and fatty foods.
  • Exercise routines might have to be changed in order to meet deadlines or do Christmas shopping
  • Regular social or business meetings might be shifted or adjusted during the holiday season

The disruption in your schedule might lead to unpredictability and discomfort. Some might reach for drugs or alcohol in order to help provide some support during their disrupted routine.

Tips and Tricks for Staying Sober During the Holiday

These are some of the most important things that you can do in order to stay sober during the holiday season. 

Prepare Your Plan B

One of the best things that you can do in preparation for the holiday season is to prepare for yourself a Plan B. A Plan B is basically an escape route that you can utilize if you find yourself in a situation that might lead to you having a relapse. 

For example, say that you are attending a party where there are drugs or alcohol available. If you’re confident that you can attend the party without using substances, great. If you have doubts, however, there are some things to keep in mind.

A Plan B for Leaving

  • If you’re attending the party with a friend or partner, let them know that you’re worried about substance use. Warn them that you might need to leave if you feel triggered or if you’re worried that you might have a relapse.

    • If it helps, you can prepare a backup location where you can recede to if you need to leave the party for a while. You can go out and grab a coffee or check out a movie until you’re feeling less triggered.

  • If you’re attending a party filled with familiar faces, then it could be helpful to let as many people as possible know about your situation. This will reduce the chances of you being offered drugs or alcohol.

  • Let the host of the party know that you’ll most likely only be staying for a short time. This allows you the opportunity to back out of the party without seeming or feeling rude.

  • If you’re attending the party by yourself, then keep the telephone number of a sober friend or sponsor at hand. If possible, arrange to have someone on call to pick you up in case you suddenly feel the need to leave the party.

Many people find that when they have a Plan B prepared, they are able to relax and actually enjoy the party. The pressure of being unprepared and vulnerable in a situation with drugs and alcohol can create stress. Ironically, the stress of being worried about relapsing may actually become a trigger for relapse!

A Plan B for Responding to Offers of Drugs or Alcohol

It’s also important to have a plan of action if someone offers you drugs or alcohol. If you have attended a rehab program then you may have already prepared something like this with your therapist or counselor. 

In many cases, simply saying ‘no,’ should be enough if someone offers you a drink. However, if they are persistent, you may not feel like explaining that you have an addiction and you’re attempting to stay sober. If someone is peer pressuring you it can be a good idea to have a prepared response for them.

If someone offers you a drink, you can oblige and ask for a non-alcoholic drink. Instead of explaining why you don’t want to consume alcohol, accept their offer and ask for, say, a glass of lemon water or a soft drink.

If they continue to push alcohol beverages then you may want to excuse yourself from the conversation or call them out for peer pressuring. Another thing you can do is make sure that you’ve always got a non-alcoholic drink in your hand. People are far less likely to offer you a drink if they see that you’re already holding one. 

Avoid Engaging in Family Conflict 

If family conflict is a regular occurrence during the holiday season, then the best thing that you can do is avoid contributing to it. Rather than adding fuel to the fire, you can simply sit by and hope that it burns out.

While bearing witness to family conflict can be stressful on its own, there’s no doubt that you will face even more difficulty if you throw yourself into the conflict. Rather than trying to defuse or emerge victorious in a familial conflict, simply try your best to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. 

This can also be an important exercise in setting boundaries. Establish with your family members any topics or issues that might trigger you to have an emotional reaction. Encourage them to do the same. That way your family can begin to communicate more effectively. Understanding one another’s boundaries and respecting them is a great way to defuse conflict before it even happens.

Reconsider Your Attitude

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed during the holidays. The reality, however, is that pretty much everyone is feeling overwhelmed, not just you. You may be able to find some solace in the fact that everyone else is just as stressed out as you are. Some people might just be able to put on a more effective game face.

Recognizing that everyone is pushing through the season together can help you become more forgiving towards yourself. As you lower your expectations and cut yourself a bit of slack you’ll likely find that you become less stressed and less likely to relapse.

Be Helpful & Generous

One of the most important aspects of recovery is learning to develop new, healthy habits. Replacing the cycle of substance addiction with positive behavior is one of the most effective ways to remain sober.

During the holiday season there are tons of opportunities to develop healthy habits. You might be able to volunteer at a charitable organization. You can help people wrap gifts and load or unload vehicles. Spend time at a homeless shelter providing food, or simply make food yourself and hand it out to people in need.

Prepare for Known Risks

The holiday season may be unpredictable at times. At others, however, the holiday season can be entirely predictable. If you spend the holidays with the same people in the same locations, year after year, then you’ll likely develop an awareness of what to expect.

If this is the case, make sure that you prepare for any known risks. If a certain family member tends to pressure you about drugs or alcohol, avoid them or contact them beforehand to let them know that you’re uncomfortable in this situation.

If you know that you’re unable to remain sober at a party where people are drinking, then don’t go! Find another alcohol-free event or spend time with family members or friends who are there to encourage your sobriety.

Prepare With Self-Care

You’re probably already aware that regular self-care is the key to feeling good all the time. Unfortunately, during the holiday season, it can be easy to fall back on your self-care routine. Exercising, eating healthy, and getting enough sleep are all important factors if you want to feel energetic and happy during the holiday season.

Double Up Your Support Network

Not only are the holidays a stressful time for you, they’re stressful for everyone else. This means that although you might be in need of additional support, the people who support you might be less available.

This means that you should double up your support network. Find additional sponsors who are willing to communicate with you in case your current sponsor is busy on holiday tasks. Find more sober friends who are willing to talk with and support you during the season. 

Be Prepared for Post-Holiday Risks

Many people are very effective, consciously or unconsciously, of repressing their emotions. Repression can be a useful skill in the sense that it allows us to stuff away certain feelings so that we can process them later. Unfortunately, most people repress feelings consistently and without the conscious intention to address them in the future.

It may be a wise decision to consider the possibility that you are repressing holiday stress, anger, or resentment. If you’re gliding through the holiday season without a second thought, this could just be a sign that you’re not going to be bothered by over-the-top holiday drama. But it might also indicate that you’re stuffing away these feelings.

If this is the case then you should take extra care of yourself after the holiday season. Once the initial rush has passed you may find that your feelings make their way out. Oftentimes people in recovery find that they are unable to identify the cause of these feelings. They may be unaware of them entirely. In either case this can increase the risk of relapse.

Conclusion

The holidays are a time of happiness and merrymaking – supposedly. Unfortunately, a lot of people – especially those in recovery – experience more stress than merrymaking during the holiday season! This stress, combined with other emotional and environmental triggers, can make someone much more likely to relapse.

However, if you’re in recovery then you already know that you’re capable of immense strength and courage. You can use these powers to apply some of the tricks in this article to help ensure that you don’t relapse this holiday season.


If you think that you’re going to have a hard time this holiday season, don’t hesitate to reach out to an addiction counselor, coach, or therapist. Spending time reconnecting with addiction workers can help guide you through the stressful holidays and ensure that you can stay strong and sober.

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