Helping Yourself (And Others) Stay Sober During the Holidays

The holidays are full of merriment and cheer, but they also bring with them a unique set of challenges, especially for those in recovery. Whether you’re newly sober or have several years under your belt, it can be hard to navigate these challenges successfully if you’re not well-equipped for them. At NorthStar Transitions, we understand how difficult this time of year can be. Our goal is not just to acknowledge the hurdles you face but to equip you and your loved ones with the tools, resources and strategies to make it through this holiday season.

Identifying Holiday Stressors

As you gear up for the holidays, learning how to identify and anticipate some of the challenges you’ll face is the first step to developing a plan to manage them without falling back on old habits.

Some of the most common holiday stressors for those in recovery include:

The Weight of Scrutiny

During a typical holiday gathering, family members come together, laughter fills the room, and good food is all around. Yet if you’re in recovery, you may also have the added ‘joy’ of relatives scrutinizing your every move to make sure you’re actually sober. They might mean well, but their watchful eyes can make it seem like they don’t trust you, leading to feelings of alienation or defensiveness and putting a damper on the holiday cheer.

Managing Stress

The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, but they can be stressful, too. Financial pressure mounts with hosting duties and the expectations of gift-giving. Social stress skyrockets as your calendar fills with events. Family tension can also peak during this period, rekindling strained relationships and unresolved friction with loved ones. This can strain even the most zen person, but learning how to manage this stress is crucial. For someone in recovery, stress is a known catalyst for relapse.

Dysfunctional Family Dynamics

Speaking of families, not everyone has a healthy family dynamic or relatives who are easy to get along with. For some people, getting together with family during the holidays can feel like stepping back into a chaotic past. Old wounds may reopen, toxic patterns can resurface and conflict might flare up. Trying to navigate these obstacles while safeguarding your sobriety can seem like an impossible task, but with a little patience, tolerance and planning, it is possible.

Navigating Old Traditions

Then there's the tradition — the double-edged sword of the holidays. For many, traditions are a source of nostalgia and comfort. But what happens when those traditions are linked to drinking or drug use? Holiday eggnog, carafes of muddled wine, and toasting with Champagne on New Year’s Eve… Breaking these traditions can feel like you’re losing your identity or connection to the past, even when you recognize these activities as unhealthy.

How to Cope

When it comes to holiday hurdles, a proactive approach is your secret to navigating them successfully. By anticipating the challenges you’ll face and brainstorming coping strategies, you’ll feel more empowered to take on the festive season with confidence.

Here are some strategies for staying sober during the holidays this year:

Come Up With a Game Plan

The first step to staying sober this holiday season is to come up with a game plan. Identify, recognize and preempt the triggers you might encounter. Know that there’s going to be alcohol at the dinner table this Christmas? Prepare yourself for any temptation and come up with responses to politely decline a drink. Worried about drug use at Friendsgiving? Don’t go. You don't owe anyone a long explanation for turning down a glass of wine or a party invite — a simple “No thank you” or “I’d love to come, but can’t make it this year” will do. However, if you’re someone who would feel better telling others why you aren’t drinking or RSVPing, decide what to say in advance so you’re prepared when faced with that situation.

If you find yourself in a situation that makes you uncomfortable, it’s also acceptable to leave early to protect your recovery. Before attending a holiday party or event, come up with an escape plan that helps you do that. If possible, bring along a sober friend for support and arrange your own transportation so you can make a quick getaway.

Start Your Own Traditions

If you’re bothered by old holiday traditions that revolve around drinking or drug use, this year provides a perfect opportunity for you to create new, healthier traditions. Starting your own traditions lets you reframe your holiday narrative and can help you create experiences that are meaningful, joyful and free from the pressures of past behaviors.

Some ideas to get you started: plan sober activities that don’t involve drugs or alcohol, such as an annual winter hike, a game night with friends and family, or a movie marathon of holiday classics. You could also host an event where sobriety is the norm, not the exception. Invite loved ones who support your recovery and focus on the joy of being together.

No matter what you decide to do, by establishing your own traditions, you open yourself up to new experiences and get the chance to redefine what the holidays mean to you.

Practice Good Self-Care

The holidays are a busy time, but don’t let your self-care fall to the wayside. As the season’s activities (and stressors) ramp up, remember to carve out some time for yourself. Maintain a healthy diet, get regular exercise and give yourself permission to relax. Going for walks, journaling or baking are just a few things you can incorporate into your self-care routine.

Self-care also includes setting healthy boundaries and saying “no” to things that cause you unnecessary stress. Protecting your mental and emotional well-being should always be your number one priority, especially if you’re in recovery. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed this time of year, but practicing good self-care can help you make it through unscathed.

Reach Out for Support

Don't hesitate to reach out for extra support during the holidays. Engage with sober communities, attend support group meetings or speak with a counselor to reinforce your commitment to sobriety. Remember, it's okay to rely on others during tough times.

During the holiday season, it's also important to communicate your needs and boundaries to those around you. Let your friends and family know how they can support you. Whether it's skipping a toast or providing non-alcoholic beverage options at dinner, most loved ones will want to help you enjoy the holidays without compromising your sobriety.

If you have a loved one in recovery, you also play an important role. Listen to what they have to say if they voice concerns about the upcoming holidays and ask what you can do to help them navigate situations that might be triggering. This could involve creating new traditions that don't center around alcohol or being their plus-one at events.

Unwrap the Gift of Recovery

When the holiday hustle feels overwhelming this year, remember that there are steps you can take to safeguard your sobriety. However, you don’t have to navigate these challenges alone. At NorthStar Transitions, we provide comprehensive treatment programs and support for those with substance use disorders, helping individuals develop solid coping strategies and build a strong foundation for lasting recovery. If you or someone you love needs a little extra support this holiday season, reach out for help — contact or call us today at 866-407-2240.

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