Why Does Substance Use Increase Around the Holidays?

The holiday season, with its festive spirit and joyous gatherings, can also bring unique challenges, especially for those in recovery from substance use disorders. While this time of year is often associated with celebration and togetherness, it can also lead to an increase in substance use for various reasons. Understanding these triggers and preparing for them can be a crucial step in maintaining your well-being and sobriety this time of year.

The Connection Between the Holidays & Substance Use

The holidays are typically associated with joy, happiness and nostalgia. However, for many, the holidays can be more stressful than joyful, thanks to numerous stressors and demands. 

If you’re feeling stressed out this time of year, you’re not alone. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that more than a third (41%) of Americans are more stressed around the holidays, caused by concerns such as not having enough money to spend on gifts, missing loved ones and the anticipation of family conflict. 

This increased stress can be troubling, especially for those in recovery. Stress is a known trigger of relapse, and the holidays provide the perfect excuse to overindulge. Between the endless string of holiday parties and family gatherings, even moderate drinkers find themselves consuming more alcohol and justifying it with tradition, the festivities or as a way to cope with hearing Uncle Bob tell the same story over and over again. 

You might be wondering why the season that promotes so much peace, joy and goodwill can cause so much stress and anxiety. At NorthStar Transitions, we’re taking a closer look at some of the biggest holiday stressors for those in recovery to provide more insight. 

The Biggest Holiday Stressors for Those in Recovery

Navigating the holiday season while in recovery from substance use disorder presents unique challenges. Recognizing and preparing for these stressors can be key to maintaining sobriety during this time. Here are some of the major holiday stressors you should be aware of:

  • Navigating Family Dynamics — Family gatherings can be a source of significant stress. Old family conflicts, the pressure to meet expectations and dealing with difficult relationships can all contribute to emotional distress this time of year.
  • Managing Busy Schedules — The holidays are often a busy time filled with event planning, gift shopping and getting together with friends or family. This hectic pace can be overwhelming to maintain and lead to heightened stress or anxiety.
  • Travel Challenges — Traveling during the holidays can be stressful, with crowded airports and long journeys. The disruption of regular support systems and routines during travel can make maintaining your sobriety more difficult.
  • Shopping & Gift Giving — The financial pressure and expectations of gift giving can be significant stressors around the holidays. The push to find the perfect gifts can lead to feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.
  • Holiday Traditions — Holiday parties and family traditions are often centered around drinking and sometimes recreational drug use. Navigating these environments while staying sober can be a significant challenge.
  • Coping with Nostalgia — The holidays can evoke feelings of nostalgia, which isn't always positive. Memories of past holidays, both good and bad, can trigger a range of emotions that might lead to substance use.
  • Disruption of Routines — The holiday season often disrupts daily routines as our schedules give way to parties, travel and time off work. Such changes can be destabilizing for those who rely on a structured routine as part of their recovery.
  • Facing Loneliness — For many, the holidays can be a lonely time, especially for those who may have lost loved ones or are estranged from their families. Loneliness is a powerful trigger for relapse. 

At NorthStar Transitions, we know that understanding these stressors is the first step in preparing for them. With some awareness, planning and support, it is possible to successfully navigate the holiday season and keep your sobriety — and mental wellness — intact. 

How To Stay Sober This Holiday Season

As the holiday season unfolds, it's crucial to have strategies in place for maintaining your mental and emotional well-being. This time of year can be challenging, with its unique mix of social pressures, emotional triggers and disrupted routines. However, with thoughtful preparation and self-awareness, it's possible to navigate these challenges successfully. The following steps offer a framework for staying sober during the holidays, empowering you to enjoy the season while honoring your dedication to your recovery. 

Develop a Plan

Anticipate potential challenges and create a plan to address them. This might include avoiding certain events, preparing responses to offers of alcohol or planning stress-reducing activities.

Seek Support

Stay connected with your support network. Attend recovery meetings, talk to your therapist or reach out to sober friends when you feel overwhelmed.

Establish Boundaries

Know your limits and communicate them clearly and effectively to friends and family. It's okay to say no to events or situations that you find triggering.

Prioritize Self-Care

Take time for yourself. Engage in activities that promote greater relaxation and well-being, such as exercise, meditation or your favorite hobbies.

Create New Traditions

Focus on creating new, sober traditions. This can be anything from volunteering to a quiet night in or planning an annual winter hike with friends and family.

Stay Mindful

Practice mindfulness and be present in the moment. Acknowledge your feelings without judgment and remind yourself of your commitment to your sobriety.

Have an Exit Strategy

If you find yourself in a challenging situation, have a plan to leave. This could mean driving yourself to events or having a trusted friend on call.

Don’t Let the Holidays Jeopardize Your Recovery

Remember, you're not alone in your journey toward recovery, especially during the holidays. If you're struggling with substance use or need extra support in maintaining your sobriety this holiday season, we're here to help. At NorthStar Transitions, our compassionate team understands the unique challenges you're facing and offers personalized care and support. 

Don’t wait until the holidays are over to get help — Connect with us today, and let's take this important step toward a healthier, happier you. Get started by calling us at 866-407-2240 or clicking here to complete our online contact form.

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