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Handling Holiday Relapse Triggers

For anyone in recovery, no matter how strong their performance in their program, the holiday season can present a risk of relapse. Any addiction, especially from alcohol, makes the holiday season a temptation-filled time period. Not to mention, the stress of both festivities and family time makes it easy to feel overwhelmed. As a result, it’s essential for individuals in recovery to be alert and vigilant to holiday relapse triggers, no matter their stage of recovery. We’ve outlined a few areas of relapse risk below.

Avoiding Parties and Triggering Situations

The presence of alcohol at holiday parties should be expected because alcohol is a socially acceptable drug. For instance, wine is traditionally served at dinners and “cheers” is the polite and positive way to mark a moment of celebration with others. For someone in early recovery, not being able to partake in such social events can signify a loss in their life. Individuals in this stage in recovery would likely have been drinking the year before at a similar event and now they must engage differently.

For those in early recovery, it is important to acknowledge that they will experience FOMO (fear of missing out) and that they will be okay. While hard to accept, it’s helpful to know that you don’t need to attend a party. This is especially true if individuals feel anxious, resentful, or upset about abstaining from drinking, especially in a social setting. After all, health and stability are more valuable than a night of holiday celebration. In fact, since most attendees will be drinking, the vast majority, if not all, of the guests will not notice if someone was not drinking or not present at all.

Having An Exit Strategy

Another way to avoid holiday relapse triggers is to go to the event with a respectful exit plan in mind. Individuals in recovery can still enjoy the dinner or early parts of a holiday party, then leave before the “real” partying takes place and things get out of hand. With this plan, the individual in recovery is still able to talk to everyone in a positive and memorable fashion while avoiding the risk of relapse. Just remember that those who are truly present and sober at the beginning of the party will be enjoying the most active and social parts of a holiday event anyway!

Having a Support System

Having a support system at the event will make it easier for the individual to stay sober and hold themselves accountable to the plan they set for the night. Bringing a plus-one to the party who understands your sobriety can be an advantageous solution. In a way, this plus-one could be thought of as a “sober wingman.” Another benefit of having this person nearby is that they can validate your feelings if the event becomes difficult.

Managing Anxiety and Depression

The holiday season can bring up anxious and difficult emotions for everyone, not just addicted individuals. While some people are filled with joy and merriment during the holidays, those in recovery may feel even sadder with the added pressure of happiness all around them.

Intense emotions of loneliness, grief, and depression arise during the holiday season for many people, especially for those who cannot share in the merriment in the same manner that they used to. This is noticeably true for someone dealing with a significant loss. For addicted individuals, sobriety is a loss of their old way of living. The memories of previous holidays may spark feelings of nostalgia, while expectations and desires for the upcoming holiday can lead to addicted individuals feeling overwhelmed or in a state of panic. It can be helpful to schedule a small check-in or even exchange a text with a sponsor or someone else in recovery during the holiday dinner. Simply having these contacts can make individuals feel more supported and safer, even in a family setting.

The holidays are a notoriously common period for people to struggle with profound depression. Because of this, it is critical that those in recovery who take medication for their mental health or addiction stay consistent and continue to take their daily dose. For high-risk addicted individuals, it is incredibly important to stay consistent in taking antidepressant medications while also staying connected with others. While there is a tendency for those in a depressive state to isolate, isolation creates a dark cycle of loneliness and allows addicted individuals to be at a higher risk for suicide or deep depression. Connection is necessary for addicts and alcoholics during the holiday season.

If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Some individuals in recovery find that working with a therapist during the holidays can be beneficial. Individuals in recovery may even want to consider scheduling an additional appointment to process seasonal emotions as they arise. The unbiased additional support that therapists provide can be useful to help individuals check in and monitor themselves and their emotions. Seeking additional opportunities for support can help individuals in recovery problem-solve any difficult relapse triggers.

Preparing For Family Issues

Much of the emotional charge during the holiday season is tied to family issues. Such family tension can surface when an individual in recovery’s family wants to catch up, including asking about the person’s progress this year. If the year was dedicated to recovery or treatment, it can make for uncomfortable and unwanted discussion. For family gatherings, it can be helpful to mentally prepare strategies to cope with loved ones who elicit the strongest emotional responses.

At the end of the day, individuals in recovery have the right to opt-out of a family gathering if it is “too much, too soon” or will threaten their sobriety. This could be especially important if there is an expectation of drinking at the event. This can be a difficult situation to navigate, especially within family units that are struggling with denial. Families often use guilt as a manipulative tool to get individuals in recovery to attend family events. Although unfortunate, this situation presents the perfect opportunity for the person in recovery to advocate for themselves and the importance of their recovery. The addicted individual will have to establish boundaries and know that their assertiveness will be put to the test. As in any time of the year and at any point in their recovery, boundaries can help cultivate relationships with respect and trust. It is important for those in recovery to stick to their boundaries regardless of any grief that they might receive from their family.

Remaining Mindful of Your Recovery

What all of these tips and strategies have in common is the need to remain mindful and secure in your recovery and your own feelings. All healthy coping mechanisms involve being mindful of stress, especially involving relationships with loved ones.

Many individuals become overwhelmed and experience a heightened level of stress during the holiday season. Celebrating the holidays while in recovery adds a new dimension to the holiday season. Your new sober circumstances provide opportunities to be more mindful and observant. This increased presence and appreciation is one of the greatest gifts of the holiday season for those in recovery.

Attending Non-Alcoholic Parties

The holiday season may be easier now for those in recovery than it has been in the past. In fact, many businesses are currently hosting dry holiday parties. After all, there is less risk for drama and danger when the drink menu only includes nonalcoholic Christmas drinks, and there are fewer HR risks associated with a sober party that could ruin dynamics between co-workers. Many companies have also chosen sober holiday office parties because of the increase in sobriety among employees and a desire to make those who are in recovery feel comfortable and welcome. Overall, there are benefits to attending a holiday party without drinking alcohol or using drugs.

Below are a few easy tips to decrease relapse triggers at a holiday party:

  • Drink nonalcoholic drinks or mocktails
  • Keep your hands full of water or snacks so people do not offer you a drink
  • Participate in holiday games or celebrations instead of hanging out by the bar

Keep in mind that staying sober at holiday parties depends on your dedication to sobriety. Attending a holiday party without drinking alcohol can seem impossible, especially if newly sober, but addicted individuals in recovery can choose their sobriety and still relish the fun and games of this season.

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