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How to Respond to Anxiety About the Holidays and Stay Substance-Free

woman wearing Santa hat staring out window

The holidays are a time of year that involves travel, parties, and reuniting with friends and family. However, if you have a history of substance abuse, the holidays can bring a host of unique challenges. Navigating the holiday season while remaining substance-free can be fearful and anxious instead of comforting and joyful. Knowing how to manage holiday stress and having a plan in place can help ensure a clean and sober holiday this season.

Be Prepared for the Challenges

Sobriety during the holidays can be challenging to navigate. Accepting that it may be challenging is an essential first step. Holiday stress and anxiety are normal. They’re also manageable with the proper preparation. Common holiday challenges might include:

  • Holiday parties with alcohol
  • Invasive questions about sobriety
  • Unsupportive family and friends
  • Triggering family relationships
  • Family arguments or disputes
  • Disruption to a regular schedule
  • Travel and physical locations

The thought of all these situations can induce crushing anxiety, robbing you of the ability to relax and enjoy the holidays. Remember that anxiety is a fear of what might happen in the future. Anticipating obstacles and knowing how to cope if (or when) they arise can alleviate fear and ensure success.

Knowledge Is Key to Success

A standard piece of recovery wisdom advises changing “people, places, and things” to ensure sobriety. That’s because these are the three most common external triggers for relapse. During the holidays, you’re most likely to come back into contact with the people, places, and things you’ve left behind in pursuit of recovery. Below, we’ll explore tips for each of these situations.

Dealing with People

Interactions with family and friends can be the most challenging aspect of navigating recovery during the holiday season. Be aware that some people might be respectful, supportive, and understanding, while others may be confused, rude, or even mocking.

Before attending an office party or flying home for the week, consider which people you’ll be around and the different ways they might challenge you.

Know How to Respond

Recognize that someone may offer you alcohol or other substances at holiday gatherings. Some people choose to be very open about mental health and substance abuse struggles. Others are not comfortable sharing such personal information in a more public environment, like an office party.

Holiday events with co-workers or friends are less personal than family gatherings, but people may still overstep your boundaries. There’s a higher likelihood of being asked direct questions about why you’re not engaging in substance use at family gatherings. Prepare by deciding in advance how you’ll respond to questions about your choices.

Know How to Decline

If someone offers you a drink, you can first simply decline without explanation. Be aware that if you say no to a drink or drug, someone may insist. 

Know your stance and how much you’re willing to share about your circumstances. If they may question your choice not to drink or use, have a prepared response. You can share that you don’t drink anymore or simply state that you’re not in the mood. Firm boundaries are critical. If your answer is not respected, continue to decline.

If necessary, move away from the person who is pushing the substance. Find someone else to speak with, step outside for fresh air, or be prepared to leave if necessary.

No social gathering is worth jeopardizing the decision to remain substance-free. If your personal choices are not respected, removing yourself from the situation is often the best choice you can make. Have an exit strategy. 

common challenges for sober holidays

Know Who to Avoid

If a co-worker is always discussing drunken escapades, don’t get roped into a conversation with them. If your cousin calls for shots, stay in the kitchen with grandma. If your siblings want to hit up the hometown bars or old friends are texting to see if you’re in town, consider putting your phone on airplane mode.

Propose a family game night or plan to settle in early with a book or movie. Suggest an outing to the movie theater or another place where drugs and alcohol won’t be present. Having alternative plans in place makes it easier to stay clean and sober. Without alternatives in place, it’s much easier to end up in environments where it’s more challenging to remain substance-free.

You don’t owe your family your time, especially if it endangers your well-being. If your family members are hostile about your choices, it’s okay to keep some distance. Advocate for your own mental and physical health by setting the boundaries you need.

Know Your Allies

Don’t underestimate the vital role of human connection. If your history of substance abuse is something you don’t typically discuss, consider confiding in a trusted work friend or family member. Having another person present who understands and wants to help can be a considerable aid. It provides a sense of connection and accountability.

If that’s not possible, make plans in advance with a few other friends who are in recovery to keep open lines of communication during the holidays. Having multiple people to communicate with is preferable, as family events and travel may mean that a single person will not always be available.

Remember that the choice to remain substance-free is highly personal. However curious people might be, you don’t owe anyone an explanation about your addiction treatment, mental illness, or substance abuse.

Dealing with Places

Physical places can also be triggering during the holidays when you’ll be traveling back to a place where you once used substances. If traveling to a particular location might jeopardize your sobriety, consider the possible triggers and make a plan to practice self-care and avoid them.

If a specific house is triggering or not good for your mental health, consider staying at a hotel. If it’s hard to stay sober in your hometown, avoid visiting the specific places you associate with drinking, using drugs, or others with substance use disorders. If family members are supportive of your choice to be substance-free, rely on them for accountability and stay in their company.

Remember that support groups exist everywhere. If you begin feeling overwhelmed, locate and attend an AA or NA meeting. Finding new places to belong is a powerful antidote to the hometown blues.

Dealing with Things

Things are the final external trigger. They are the easiest to control, but the hardest to predict. That’s because the things that trigger the desire to use can be different for everyone. Holiday traditions can bring their own set of triggers absent during the rest of the year.

Success with triggering objects comes down to anticipation and avoidance. Know that certain things will inspire the desire to use. Consider which things these are for you and take any possible steps you can avoid them. Still, know that all triggers are not always possible to predict. The key to staying substance-free is to be aware you’re likely to encounter triggers. Decide in advance how you want to respond.

An additional tip for success is to find a way to fill the void. If you know there will be a family toast, don’t show up empty-handed. Bring or discover a new favorite, non-alcoholic holiday beverage. Sparkling grape juice, apple cider, and eggnog are all options that provide holiday flavor without the cost of sobriety.

Forming new traditions and practices is a crucial step toward maintaining a substance-free lifestyle. Replace the negative with something positive. Instead of feeling down that you’re “not drinking alcohol,” remember you are drinking the new holiday beverage of your choice—one that supports your physical and mental health.

Home for the Holidays

Substance abuse goes beyond people, places, or things. The desire to use a substance is often a coping mechanism for the underlying desire to change how you feel. For many people, a complex emotional landscape established itself in childhood. For this reason, spending time and reuniting with family members can be more triggering than other kinds of interactions.

Many people who have gone through substance abuse treatment don’t feel adequately understood or supported by family. These feelings can trigger anxiety and depression, along with relapse when stressed during the holidays. Remember that you are not alone in this struggle. Use your support network and any tools you’ve learned from substance abuse treatment or twelve-step groups.

One of the most significant advantages of maintaining sobriety long-term is the opportunity to repair and redefine meaningful relationships. Staying sober or clean takes work, but the benefits can be huge. Do the work to hold your boundaries and protect your mental health so that you can enjoy the holidays with the people who mean the most to you.

Final Thoughts 

Addiction recovery is a process of learning new, healthy ways to cope with life’s stressors. If you do relapse during the holiday season, don’t feel ashamed. It may be a road bump on the path to long-term recovery, but you can move forward and continue to make the choices that are best for your health and sobriety.

If you’re struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, The Recovery Team can help. Contact us at (800) 817-1247 to discuss the substance abuse treatment option that will best support your journey to long-term recovery.