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Why The Holidays Put Extra Pressure On Recovery

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By the time you read this, the last remnants of your Thanksgiving meal would have been eaten. The craziness of Black Friday and Cyber Monday are just behind us. And now we start to look forward to the remaining holidays. You know, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. And of course, New Year’s.

From festive parties to the stress of family get-togethers, to the ever-present question “what do I get for him/her?” The holidays are already an overwhelming time. But they can be especially difficult for those dealing with addiction, or those who may be just “starting out.” The problem with the holidays is that almost every event involves alcohol in some way; it's simply part of the culture. The temptation to drink or to get high can be hard to avoid.

For others, the holidays are a particularly lonely time, especially if their past problems with substance use left them estranged from family and friends, and that loneliness can serve as another reason to turn to drugs or alcohol again.

4 Reasons the Holidays Make Recovery Hard

Holidays are synonymous with “overindulgence”

During the holidays, we tend to overindulge on everything from food, to drinks, to presents. But for some, the holidays can also be a time for overindulgence of substances. For example, drinking is very common throughout the holidays, such as at social events, work parties, and family gatherings. This added exposure and a feasting mindset can be difficult for those trying to recover from an addiction. Many turn to drinking and drug use more often throughout the holidays as a coping mechanism and to provide stress relief and/or regain control in an aspect of their life.

Throughout COVID, there’s been an increase in mental health struggles.

The pandemic has played a major role in negatively affecting mental health, and has caused lasting effects on people, particularly those who are young. In a survey conducted by the CDC, they found that there’s been a 31% increase in anxiety and depression symptoms, and 13% of those surveyed started or increased their substance use. Especially amongst young people, the lasting effects of COVID-19 are impacting their mental health, making the holidays much more difficult to deal with. 

The holiday season is simply very stressful.

Even in years pre-COVID, added holiday stress has led many towards increased substance use and abuse. The holidays are notoriously stressful, as they cause people to rush to prepare for gatherings, deal with family members they may find unpleasant, and reflect on past painful memories. These stressors can be extremely triggering, and can cause those in recovery to look for a well-known comfort or escape in order to relieve some of the stress. 

Triggers and loneliness may happen more in holiday seasons.

Throughout the pandemic, many have experienced heightened feelings of loneliness, having missed out on potential gatherings and losing touch with friends and family. The holidays put an emphasis on being together with loved ones; however, this can be triggering for those who don’t celebrate with others or who have lost loved ones in the past. Without people around, it’s easier to act on indulgences without facing the judgement of others. Many turn to substances as a way to cope with loneliness and to alleviate their boredom.

Holidays are hard on everyone

The one thing that’s true for most people is that the holidays always make the stress much worse, and that increased stress can make it hard for you to hold firmly to your goals and your recovery plan. Despite the fact that the holidays add enough stress to make many people consider alcohol or drugs just to wind down, it’s possible to deal with the stress and difficulties.

Fact is, holidays are when many will actually begin their substance use. Which is why, now more than ever, it's important that parents remember that they are setting an example for their kids about drinking — whether they realize it or not. Try not to laugh at or glorify the actions of people who have had too much to drink — even those on television or in movies. Remember to offer plenty of nonalcoholic drink options when you entertain in your home to show your kids that grown-ups don’t need alcohol to have fun together.

The holidays are also hard for those with family members with alcohol problems, and many dread inviting them over knowing that they're going to create a scene. So let’s not forget those in early recovery or who have made the choice to stop drinking. Our advice: go easy on loved ones who relapse during the holidays. Quitting drinking is not easy and many are not successful the first time. So it's important not to expect perfection, to forgive, and to support family members as they try again.

How to Stay Focused On Recovery During the Holidays

Have a trusted accountability partner or buddy

An accountability partner gives those in recovery someone to turn to when things get tough. Sharing your goals and intentions with a partner during the holidays can help you avoid overindulging, as they’ll hold you accountable for your actions. A partner can sympathize with your struggle, offering advice and guidance to help you stay on track. They understand what you’re going through and can recognize warning signs if you’re not doing well.

Know, understand, and recognize your triggers

Having a clear understanding of your triggers can help you get through the holidays. By being aware of them, those in recovery can learn how to cope with or avoid triggers before they arise.

According to Talkspace, the best way to recognize your triggers is by compiling all of them into a thorough list, adding anything that causes you to seek relief. Consider triggers that may arise due to the holidays and try to prepare ahead of time so you will know how to handle them should they happen.

Keep yourself busy with healthy activities that make you feel good.

When someone has a lot of downtime, they usually look for ways to distract themself. However, for someone in recovery, this extra downtime can be hard to deal with, and can lead to more substance use. 

To counter this, spend time doing things that will make you happy, satisfied, and joyful. Fill up your day with productive and healthy activities or hobbies, rather than sitting around idly. Distracting yourself from boredom will take your focus away from substances. 

Know who to reach out to when you’re struggling.

To reiterate. Dealing with addictions around the holidays can be difficult, but you can make it through. You need to know what makes you struggle. Identify the stressors and the inner struggles. Your willpower is finite. You only have so much to give, so protect your choices and avoid putting yourself in difficult situations. Needing to talk to someone and getting help is normal. Don’t be afraid to get it.

And keep in mind. New Year’s is just around the corner but it is not the be-all or end-all of anyone’s addiction-free lifestyle goals. It’s just another date. Keep progressing toward that addiction-free lifestyle, and don’t let the holidays make it harder for you.

Those who are struggling should be aware of the resources they have available to turn to. If you feel as though you need support, never hesitate to ask for help. Crisis counselors are available via text at Crisis Text Line, and via phone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They can offer guidance and support to help you get you back on track and through the holidays.


Photo credit: Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

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