The Holiday Season in Recovery: Tips for Staying Sober

Happiness and cheer. These two simple words introduce the tune that most associate with the 1965 Charlie Brown holiday special. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

For most, the holiday season is full of things that bring us joy and peace. From the bright lights and holiday decorations to cozy family and friend gatherings with plenty of turkey, dressing, and desserts to last all season long.

It’s true, the magic of the holiday season is unmatched by any other time of year, but for many in the recovery community, this can be a time of year that is especially challenging.

Family Vacation or Nightmare?

Imagine this. You pull up to your annual family gathering dressed for the occasion with presents in the trunk to share, step out of your car, and head to the front door with arms full of goodies to share. You expect to be greeted warmly and ushered to a buffet of warm, hot-from-the-oven holiday meats, sides, and desserts. Instead, you’re greeted by that insensitive (dare we say, terrible?) family member, and your insides immediate tense up.

Perhaps they offer you an alcoholic beverage or make a corny joke about being surprised you’re single for yet another holiday. Maybe they usher you through a crowd of overly joyous family members who are enjoying spiked cocktails and greeting you with tipsy hellos or whispering the latest family gossip in your ear. You find yourself in a swirl of holiday cheer-laden individuals who make you remember all too well why you dread these annual holiday gatherings.

You glance over at the delicious food you can’t wait to enjoy, if only you could make it to the kitchen uninterrupted. Maybe if everyone would just leave you alone, or cared less about your relationship status, or were more sensitive to the fact that you don’t drink, this year’s gathering might not be so bad. But the odds are not looking great.

Any of this sound familiar?

What’s Hard This Season

While we’d like to believe most people love this time of year, it can actually be a significant source of stress and tension for many. Oftentimes the season that the masses describe as the most joyous time of year ends up leading to more loneliness, depression, and isolation than ever.

In fact, studies show that those who are in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction are more likely to relapse and return to alcohol or drug use during the holidays. According to a 2022 study by the Center for Network Therapy, drug and alcohol relapse rates spike by at least 150% during the holiday season, and it was during the holiday season that 60% of those who had gotten help at some point in the past had relapsed and sought treatment again.

These alarming statistics shed light on the fact that the holidays may not be the easiest or most joyful for those in the recovery community.

Holiday Relapse Triggers

Navigating recovery during the holidays requires having realistic expectations, being prepared for the worst-case scenario, and packing your suitcases metaphorically with plenty of emotional support for the not-so-pretty times. By understanding and addressing potential triggers, individuals in recovery during the holidays can better equip themselves to handle the season without sacrificing their well-being and sobriety. See if you can identify with any of the below triggers for relapse during this holiday season.

Stress & Hectic Schedules

During the holidays, stress can soar to higher than normal levels due to increased responsibilities and commitments. With demanding schedules, holiday parties, and work deadlines, those experiencing the holidays in recovery may find it challenging to prioritize any form of self-care. The heightened stress can lead to putting in longer hours to get everything done and sacrificing on sleep, triggering an urge to cope with alcohol, and leading to relapse.

More Alcohol-Related Activities

Holiday gatherings often revolve around alcohol, making it unavoidable in most social settings. From corporate office parties to family celebrations and friend gatherings, the prevalence of alcohol can create intense temptation for those trying to stay sober during the holidays. Constant exposure to others drinking can not only lead to feelings of isolation, but can also weaken resolve and trigger cravings for alcohol.

Financial Stress

The financial strain of gift-giving and travel can exacerbate anxiety and pressure during the holiday season. Unlike any other, the season for giving quickly turns into the season of need as we realize how quickly our bank account is dwindling. For individuals in recovery during the holidays, this can become a trigger for relapse as they seek relief or a way to cope with the overwhelming financial burden of the holidays.

Family Dynamics

Family gatherings during the holidays may bring unresolved tensions or conflicts to the surface. Remember the scenario from earlier? Emotional strain, unresolved issues, or even past trauma within families of origin can act as a powerful trigger for individuals in recovery during the holidays, leading them to the desire to resort to alcohol as a means of copying or escaping.

Depression & Loneliness

The holidays can intensify feelings of depression and loneliness for some individuals. Memories of past experiences, missing loved ones, or being unable to participate in celebrations due to work or life circumstances can evoke a sense of isolation. This emotional distress can prompt a desire to self-medicate with alcohol.

Lack of Sober Support

In the midst of the festive season, access to support groups or individuals who understand the challenges of sobriety during the holidays may be limited. Many support networks might also have altered schedules or reduced meetings, leaving individuals in recovery feeling isolated and without the necessary guidance or encouragement to stay sober during the holiday season.

Tips for Staying Sober During the Holidays

With so many possible triggers, the holiday season can make you feel like you are being set up to fail or relapse at some point. The good news is that there are plenty of strategies and tips you can use throughout this season to help set yourself up for success in sticking to your goals in recovery and preventing relapse. They include:

Plan Ahead

Prepare for holiday events by creating a plan that emphasizes your sobriety in the holiday season. Decide in advance how long you’ll stay at gatherings and have an exit strategy if you begin to feel uncomfortable or triggered. Communicate your boundaries to friends and family, letting them know your commitment to staying sober and requesting their support in maintaining that decision. Having a non-alcoholic beverage such as sparkling water or hot chocolate in hand can help in a more literal sense by quite literally having your hands full. And as part of your exit strategy, you may also find it equally helpful and comforting to drive yourself to holiday events so that you have the control and flexibility to leave when tensions are rising or you find yourself struggling with temptation.

Stay Connected

Maintain close contact throughout the holidays with your support network, whether it’s your sponsor, therapist, or a sober friend. Stay in touch with individuals who understand your journey and can offer guidance or simply provide a listening ear during challenging times throughout the season. Participating in virtual support groups or seeking online resources can also provide assistance when face-to-face interactions are limited during the holidays.

Practice Self-Care

Whether you’re traveling or home for the holidays, prioritizing self-care through adequate sleep, regular exercise, and nutritious meals is essential. Implement stress-relieving techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, gratitude, or mindfulness practices to manage holiday-related stress effectively. Engage in activities that bring you joy and fulfillment, whether it’s through exercise, creative hobbies, or volunteering. Taking care of your physical and mental well-being can fortify your resilience against triggers that might lead to relapse.

Have a Relapse Prevention Plan

Identify potential triggers that may challenge your sobriety during the holidays, such as specific people, places, or situations. Develop a relapse prevention plan that includes copying strategies to navigate these triggers effectively. Practice mindfulness and self-awareness and keep a list of emergency contacts readily available to safeguard your sobriety during the holidays.

What to Do in Case of a Relapse

So what if the triggers get to be too much, your support system is MIA, and your plan for success isn’t going as smoothly as you’d like? Remember, relapse is not only possible, but also likely for many in recovery to experience at some point, even during the holidays. If you do relapse, hear us and repeat this to yourself: YOU ARE NOT A FAILURE. There are millions of recovering addicts who have been in your shoes. A relapse is simply part of the recovery process. It can be a difficult and unnerving thing to experience, but it doesn’t have to be the end of your recovery.

Here are some tips on what to you if you find yourself slipping back into old patterns.

Take a Step Back & Assess the Situation

What led to your relapse? Where were you, what triggers were present? Identifying these factors can play a huge part in helping you avoid them in the future. By assessing and thinking about the relapse itself (think about what happened right before, during, and after your relapse), you will be able to see more clearly how the relapse occurred and better prepared to handle the same situation in the future.

As you think back on what caused your relapse, speak to yourself with kind words. Avoid thinking or saying out loud words such as “failure,” “lost cause,” or “stupid.” Studies show that when we think these things about ourselves, we start to believe them.

Instead, speak to yourself with words or sentences such as:

  • “I was feeling…, so I…”
  • “I was struggling with…, so I thought the right next step would be to…”
  • “My feelings were valid, and I can understand how that happened. I can avoid this next time by doing these three things…”

Talk to Someone Who Understands

Whether it’s a friend, family member, therapist, or recovery care advocate, talking about what you’re going through can help you process your feelings and develop a plan to get back on track. It is essential to lean on your support during a relapse and to remember that times like this are why you have a support system.

It will be tempting after a relapse to pretend it didn’t happen or to avoid telling anyone out of fear that the other person will think you’re a failure. Remember, your support system is there for a reason. They are your support system not because they are perfect, but because they understand what it means to try and to fail and to have to get up and try again. Be open and honest with them knowing that the more honest you are, the easier it will be to overcome this setback and get back on the road to recovery.

Increase Self-Care

When you experience a relapse, intentionally take more time to care for yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. Consider things like getting more sleep, eating a balanced diet, and exercising regularly, but don’t neglect the less-obvious forms of self-care such as hobbies, listening to music, or spending time with friends.

Along the same lines as being kind to yourself, we encourage you NOT to go to the extreme. When you think you just want sleep, you might oversleep. When you think you just need to exercise, you might run until you’re ragged. Think of ways you can incorporate self-care in the forms of mindfulness through gentle yoga, a leisurely stroll, or watching a nostalgic movie. Be gentle with yourself, but be sure to fill yourself with things that bring YOU peace and joy in midst of a tough situation.

Seek Professional Help, If Necessary

If you feel like you’re struggling to cope on your own, don’t be afraid to reach out for additional support from a qualified mental health professional. Immediate support is essential when it comes to relapse.

You can reach out to our professionals at Cumberland Heights at any time of any day here. We are here for you, to listen and to help guide you in the next steps of recovery if you’re unsure. Remember, you are not the only one who has walked this road and you never have to walk it alone.

Remember, a relapse doesn’t erase your progress. It’s an opportunity to learn and reinforce your commitment to sobriety during the holidays. With the right support and determination, it’s possible to move forward even stronger on your journey to recovery.

We Are Here For You

At Cumberland Heights, it is our mission to transform lives, giving hope and healing to those affected by alcohol or drug addiction.

It is of vital importance to us that we equip you with the tools and resources to navigate the struggles you or a loved one faces on their road to recovery.

When it comes to the holiday season, everyone struggles. Sometimes we forget this and think some people are immune from bad or negative experiences in life. We cannot emphasize enough how untrue this is! When you experience struggle – whether it’s through family dynamics, remembering a loss, or temptations to relapse – know you are not alone and that our staff here at Cumberland Heights is here to help.

To learn more about our relapse prevention program, click here, or give us a call at (866) 899-5112.