14 Tips for staying sober through the holidays, preventing relapse, and avoiding the holiday blues
For many of us, the holidays are a season of peace and joy, where we decorate our memories with calm and happy moments. But the reality often looks quite different, and the holiday stressors quickly pile up for the person in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction, making it a difficult time of year to stay sober.
Family members expect holiday perfection, and they often demand every ounce of your time and energy—and patience. The family menu is a constant carb-load, and traveling puts a strain on your wallet. Packed airports, tight schedules, liquid lunch for Aunt Sally. Everyone is running on empty, and the annual fight is just waiting to happen.
On top of that, you can’t attend your home group meeting, and you haven’t heard from your sponsor in two days. How does anyone stay sober during the holidays? Here are some tried-and-true tips and strategies that will prepare you for the holidays, help you avoid relapse, and protect you from any uncomfortable situations.
1. Hatch a holiday escape plan, and plan on staying sober through the holidays
The first tip sounds like a no-brainer but plan. Holiday-themed parties and family gatherings are often soaked in alcohol, and people are likely to offer you a drink—and they might be dumbstruck when you prefer to be sober. Plan for uncomfortable situations and triggering environments. What might your holiday plan involve?
- Attend a Twelve-Step meeting beforehand, or invite a sober friend to tag along
- Make plans to meet up with your sponsor or talk on the phone
- Find your own transportation, or hitch a ride with someone in your support system
- Limit your time around stressful situations and difficult people
- Prepare to politely refuse alcohol or other drugs
- Have an escape plan if things go south
Don’t be surprised by a trigger. If you come prepared to protect your sobriety, you should be able to outmaneuver addiction and avoid any potential relapses.
2. Rewrite the holiday story in your head
If you become a ball of wretched energy during the holidays, perhaps your expectations have become your downfall.
Speak with a sober friend or sponsor about the emotions and expectations you have wrapped up in the holidays—especially if you feel resentful, or if you replay in your mind old childhood experiences and memories. You need to investigate and challenge the internal monologue about what you are owed and what you are lacking—some of which might be a carryover from addiction. Then you can break down those defensive walls and forgive other people, and you can approach the holiday season with a stronger sense of gratitude.
When those feelings are left untended, people in addiction recovery often experience a buildup of stress and resentment that eventually leads to relapse. When self-identifying addicts or alcoholics* refuse to challenge those feelings of resentment and self-pity, they set the stage for relapse and disaster.
Remember, the disease of addiction is as powerful the day after a holiday as it is the day of and the day before. As we learn during addiction rehab and in the meeting rooms, recovery is a one-day-at-a-time endeavor, no matter the season. Maintaining this mentality will help you with the task of staying sober through the holidays.
3. Want to stay sober? Stay helpful
If you want to stay sober during the holidays, look for every opportunity to be of service. Serve a meal at a homeless shelter, reach out to a newcomer at a meeting, spend time with an elderly loved one or neighbor. There are a million different ways to give back, pay it forward, and be of service, and each opportunity guides you further away from resentment, self-pity, and fear.
When you take the opportunity to connect with others—to see, value, and honor their experience—you exercise empathy. You exist outside of yourself, and you begin to notice all the blessings your life already contains. And it doesn’t get more human, or more recovery, than that.
4. Be mindful of what you’re drinking—and thinking
At family gatherings and social events, tote around your favorite non-alcoholic drink. People won’t feel so inclined to offer you a drink, and they won’t get the chance to pester you about your sobriety.
Be mindful of asking someone else to grab you a drink. They may misunderstand you or forget that you don’t intend to drink alcohol. If you do accidentally take a sip of an alcoholic beverage, don’t panic. It’s only a sip, and it doesn’t mean you’ve relapsed—or that you should entertain the thought of relapsing now.
If those thoughts begin to creep in—those rationalizations about your eminent capability to now handle your liquor—shut them down immediately. Your abstinence did not teach you how to control your drinking, because abstinence didn’t rewire your brain to be non-addicted. The damage is done, and there’s no going back. Instead, talk it out with your sponsor or sober friends. A mistake is not a relapse, and it’s not going to land you in rehab, but those secrets might.
5. Some triggers and traps are optional
If you know Cousin Sadie is going to grill you about rehab, avoid her. If Uncle Brian is going to mix you a stiff drink, stay away from him. If the office New Year’s party is all about drinking or other drug use, make a brief appearance or don’t attend. It’s unrealistic in all of these scenarios to say, “I can soldier through it.” That’s what Step One of the Twelve Steps teaches us, right? That we don’t have the power. So why put yourself in the position of having to “power through” an obstacle course of relapse triggers? Staying sober and safeguarding your recovery must always come first.
6. Practice self-care throughout the holidays
Celebrate the holiday season and the fullness of your sober life by taking time for yourself. Proper nutrition, gentle exercise, and restorative sleep can do wonders for your well-being. The better you feel physically, the stronger you will be emotional. Nourish your spirit, too, through personal reflection and connection with those you love. Find some quiet time each day for relaxation and meditation—if only for a few minutes, no matter how busy you are. And let your spirit be your guide.
7. If you need treatment for addiction to alcohol or other drugs, consider going to rehab over the holidays
Some families might consider the holidays an inappropriate time to help a loved one get into addiction treatment when, in fact, it could be an ideal opportunity. For many of the reasons mentioned earlier, substance abuse tends to ramp up over the holidays. Addiction treatment initiated during the holidays could be the best gift you give to your family, your friends, and yourself.
8. Celebrate relationships
As you consider holiday occasions, think about them as a way to make new friendships and perhaps rekindle old relationships with friends. Instead of making the event about drinking and eating as a priority, intentionally make it about “people” and building relationships; go into each party looking forward to establishing real connections.
9. Eat well for staying sober through the holidays
The holidays don’t give us a green light to overindulge. There’s nothing worse than stuffing ourselves with too much sugar, carbs, and fat-laden foods that make us feel bad. So be proactive and choose healthy foods that will make you want to celebrate, not feel guilty.
10. Service, not self
When we can focus on others, we find more joy and gratitude. So look for ways to think about and serve others. Make a special family recipe and deliver it to friends. Donate your time at a homeless shelter, food pantry, or soup kitchen. Spend time with a neighbor who is confined. These spiritual opportunities allow us to spread happiness and cheer to others. Treat it as one of the benefits of staying clean and sober; being able to have a clear mind and body to help others.
11. Create new traditions
Celebrate the fact you are reestablishing your own life. As you affirm your new self on these festive days, you are choosing to celebrate the new, better, clean, and sober life that you have created. This might mean hosting a sober, festive gathering with friends in recovery. It may mean volunteering to serve at local 12-Step support groups. Remember, giving is one of the best things you can do during the holidays.
12. Avoid relapse triggers
Of all triggers, the most significant can be emotional triggers. No matter if you are in recovery or not, the holiday season is one of the most stressful times of the year. With so many activities squeezed into one month, our normal routines get disrupted and people get frustrated and anxious.
Also, there are increased demands from your spouse, partner, or other family members, and this can put serious stress on your sobriety. This can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, humiliation, embarrassment, anger, and depression. The holidays don’t have to be “perfect” and just like previous years. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Saying “no” is perfectly acceptable and it will protect you.
13. Make sobriety your top priority
If you think about it, all holiday parties are optional. If you don’t think the activity is going to be good for your recovery, it’s okay not to go. You can politely decline the party invite, but make a lunch date with the host for another day.
14. Maintain your spirituality for staying sober through the holidays
Our commercial world wants us to believe that joy can come from tinsel, booze, and shopping. It sells us the lie that happiness can be found in these. Instead, focus on the true spirit of the season. Regardless of your faith or spiritual beliefs, the holidays are really about two things: giving and gratitude. When we focus on these, the other things such as resentment, disappointment, anger, worry, self-loathing show up far less often and cannot find a foothold in our hearts.
Reclaim Your Life From Substance Abuse
Substance use disorder is a serious disease that should not be taken lightly. Staying sober through the holidays can be a challenge, that is why going into rehab during this season can be very helpful in the short and long term. We Level Up California Rehab Institute can provide you, or someone you love, the tools to recover from addiction with professional and safe treatment. Feel free to call us to speak with one of our counselors. We can inform you about this condition by giving you relevant information. Our specialists know what you are going through. Please know that each call is private and confidential.