While the holiday season is often referred to as a time for celebration and joy, it can be a triggering season for those with substance abuse issues or in recovery. This time of the year can produce a range of emotions, including stress, loneliness, and seclusion, which can lead individuals to turn to alcohol or drugs as a means to cope.
The Link Between the Holidays and Substance Abuse
The holidays can involve a combination of emotional, social, and environmental factors that could tempt someone to abuse substances to survive the holiday stressors and challenges. From joy and excitement to stress and sadness, the holidays can evoke many emotions and heighten them. For those in recovery or with active substance abuse issues, these heightened emotions can be a trigger for them. Holiday parties and social gatherings often serve or have alcohol readily available, which can create a sense of pressure and expectation to drink. The cultural norm to celebrate with alcohol and even sometimes drugs can be challenging and overwhelming for those in recovery to maintain sobriety. The holidays are often associated with family time and togetherness but can also be depressing and lonely for some.
Emotional Triggers: Stress, Loneliness, and Holiday Blues
Emotional triggers during the holidays, like stress, loneliness, and holiday blues, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), can significantly contribute to substance abuse. Financial pressures during the holidays related to gift-giving, hosting gatherings, family dynamics, and the preparation for holiday festivities can be incredibly stressful and overwhelming. For someone with a substance use disorder (SUD) or alcohol addiction, stress can act as a trigger, leading them to use alcohol or drugs to alleviate the discomfort or escape the pressures. While the holiday season is associated with togetherness, for those who are experiencing loss, alienation from family, or living too far from friends and family, it can amplify these feelings of loneliness and sadness. Some may turn to substance use to fill the emotional void and numb those feelings of loneliness.
The term “holiday blues” or “winter blues” refers to feelings of melancholy or depression that typically occur during the fall and winter. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression used to describe these feelings triggered by changes in the seasons, specifically when the days get darker and the weather is colder. These feelings can stem from reflecting on changes or losses from the past year, unmet expectations, or even nostalgia for past times. Alcohol or drugs might also be used in an attempt to cope with these emotions, only to exacerbate those feelings of sadness and loneliness once the substances wear off.
Social Influences: Holiday Parties and Gatherings
Social pressure and expectations are significant contributing factors to substance use issues. There is an unspoken expectation to engage in drinking or drug use during gatherings, especially holiday celebrations. For someone who struggles with substance use or is in recovery, this social pressure can be overwhelming and potentially lead to relapse. Even those who don’t have a history of substance abuse might feel pressured to drink more than they’re used to. Excessive drinking and sometimes drug use during the holiday season have become normalized and even glamorized for celebrations. This perspective often minimizes the anticipated risks and consequences of substance abuse, which can lead people to engage in riskier behaviors than usual.
Someone who experiences social anxiety might use alcohol or drugs to reduce feelings of anxiety and feel more comfortable at holiday parties and social gatherings. The holidays can be filled with triggers for those in recovery from alcohol or drug abuse. Being around family members and friends who are drinking or using drugs, encountering stressors like strained relationships, or being in an environment where they used to engage in substance use can all risk triggering a relapse.
Coping Mechanisms: Navigating the Season While Maintaining Sobriety
While avoiding these holiday stressors and triggers can be challenging, it’s essential to prepare yourself and implement healthy coping strategies to help navigate these situations and emotions. Equipping yourself with these strategies and mechanisms can help you maintain your sobriety and avoid substance use during the holidays. Whether creating an escape plan, establishing boundaries with friends and family, or creating a new holiday tradition, there are ways to stay sober and enjoy the holiday season.
1. Plan Ahead
Anticipate and prepare for challenging or uncomfortable situations and plan how to handle them. This could include planning an early exit strategy from parties, rehearsing what to do in an awkward situation, or arranging check-ins with a supportive friend or sponsor during gatherings.
2. Establish Boundaries
Be clear about your limits and triggers with your loved ones. Establishing boundaries with friends and family can be stressful, but it is fundamental for those in addiction recovery. Don’t be afraid to say no to events or situations that might jeopardize your sobriety or make you feel uncomfortable or triggered. Your health and well-being must be prioritized and come first always, especially in recovery.
3. Avoid Known Triggers
Stay away from people, places, and situations that trigger negative emotions and the urge to use drugs or drink alcohol. If specific holiday gatherings or traditions are too risky, it’s best to avoid them. Remember, taking care of your mental health during the holidays is more important than missing out on a party or disappointing someone.
4. Bring Non-Alcoholic Alternatives
If you attend a holiday party, you can bring along or request non-alcoholic beverages. Having an alcohol-free drink or Christmas mocktail can help you feel included in the holiday festivities and still be able to celebrate without compromising your sobriety.
5. Create New Holiday Traditions
Whether hosting a sober holiday party or volunteering at a local food drive, you can create new holiday traditions that don’t revolve around alcohol or substances. Sober-friendly holiday traditions can include outdoor activities, volunteering, crafting, cooking, or other hobbies that you enjoy.
6. Practice Self-Care
Prioritizing self-care activities that support your physical and mental health, such as exercise, meditation, rest, and healthy eating, can help combat substance use. Self-care practices during the holidays can help manage stress and maintain balance for those in recovery or struggling with substance abuse.
7. Mindfulness and Reflection
Practicing mindfulness, breathing techniques, and meditation can help you to stay present and grounded over the holidays. Take time to reflect on your recovery journey and the reasons you chose sobriety, especially when faced with triggers and challenges. Consider what you are thankful for, including the psychological and physical progress you’ve made on your sobriety journey. Practicing gratitude in recovery can be a powerful tool to help maintain a positive outlook.
8. Seek Support and Treatment
Having a support network in recovery is essential for maintaining sobriety and combatting relapse. Keeping yourself occupied with fulfilling activities can divert your attention from temptations. Engage in hobbies, spend time with positive friends and family members, or explore new interests. Please stay connected with your support network, whether it’s attending extra recovery support group meetings or therapy sessions to help navigate the holidays.
The holidays can be an overwhelming time of the year for many individuals, especially those struggling with substance abuse. If you’re struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction and are seeking addiction treatment, reach out to Rock Recovery Center in West Palm Beach, FL. We want to help you achieve a happy and healthy life in sobriety!
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2023. Supporting Your Mental Health During the Holiday Season.
- The Temper, 2019. 10 Ideas for Making Sober Holiday Traditions.