From busy schedules to the stress of family gatherings, the holiday season can get overwhelming. This time of year brings added challenges for those in recovery from substance use disorders. Parties involving alcohol can bring the temptation to drink or use drugs. The holidays can also be a lonely time, especially for those who see joy and merriment around them, while inside they’re struggling with depression or anxiety.
These emotions and situations are known as addiction relapse triggers. Relapse triggers are anything that brings back thoughts and feelings associated with past drug or alcohol use. Triggers cause people to think about using the drug, which can lead to them actually using the drug.
Here are some potential triggers to watch out for this holiday season, and ways to cope with them.
Alcohol is a big part of many holiday celebrations, from office Christmas parties to champagne toasts on New Years. Overindulging this time of year is common. But this doesn’t work for people in recovery from addiction, and the party atmosphere can be triggering for many people.
Stress, Depression and Anxiety
Holiday TV and Christmas cards depict the holiday season as a time of joy and family togetherness. But for people who are in recovery or dealing with co-occurring mental health conditions, their feelings may not match up with what’s going on around them. People may feel lonely if their relationships with loved ones were damaged by their drug use. They may feel ashamed, or angry, or nostalgic for easier times.
Anxiety also picks up around the holidays. People may be trying to make the day “perfect” to make up for past holidays they missed. Or they may be worried that they’ll be able to handle any cravings or triggers that crop up.
Changes in Routine
Sticking to routine around sleep, eating, meeting attendance and exercise is very beneficial to recovery. But the holidays often disrupt routines. End of year work and school deadlines, feeling pressure to shop or cook and make the holiday perfect for the family, travel and time off make it easy to skip meetings, meals and exercise. For people in recovery who find strength in sticking to a routine, the disruption can raise the risk of relapse.
Ah, family. The holidays have a way of stirring the pot with relatives. When family members drink, simmering arguments may bubble over, old conflicts may resurface. The emotional upset or anger associated with family members’ behavior can be very triggering for people, especially if they used alcohol or drugs as a way to escape in the past.
Ways to Protect Your Recovery
Staying sober during the holiday season may take added effort and attention. Here’s some advice for people in recovery – and those who love them – on navigating the holidays in recovery.
1. Stick to your routine, to the extent possible. If getting up at a certain time and a daily walk have been important to your recovery, stick to it. Continue to eat right, meditate, and do the activities that help you feel balanced and relaxed. Everything else can wait.
2. Continue going to meetings. During this time, it’s especially important to continue going to 12-step meetings. If you’re traveling, identify meetings in the area where you’ll be staying. If your sponsor is out of town, make sure you have another sober buddy you can call in times of stress.
3. Be prepared in situations where you may encounter drinking or drug use. One method of avoiding triggers is to say “no” to parties or family events where they may be alcohol or drugs. But it’s difficult to avoid the festivities entirely. If you go to a party where there is alcohol being served, decide ahead of time what you’ll say if you’re offered a drink so you don’t feel put on the spot. You can simply decline and ask for a soda or juice. Or bring your own fun, non-alcoholic sparkling drink if it feels more festive.
4. Find sober events to enjoy. From holiday performances to ice skating to hunting for the best Christmas light shows, there are many festive occasions that don’t include alcohol or drugs. Many 12-step groups also have holiday get-togethers.
5. Start new traditions. Go sledding, volunteer at a food bank, host a cookie exchange, take a family hike. Recovery is a time to break with the past and embrace positive change.
6. Spend time with people who support your recovery. Whether it’s family, friends or your 12-step group, feeling connected at the holidays can ward off feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness. Spend time with people who make you feel loved, accepted and supported. These friendships can help you get through any difficult days.