Many Americans look forward to Thanksgiving as a time to gather with family and friends. Sharing a feast with one another is perhaps the biggest part of this yearly celebration, and great food is usually followed by traditions like watching football or reflecting on what we’re grateful for.

Holidays like Thanksgiving are supposed to be a time to feel grateful and think back on accomplishments while indulging in some treats. Unfortunately, many Americans report feeling high levels of stress during the holiday seasons. For people in recovery from a substance use disorder or mental health condition, however, the holidays can be even more challenging. These times can bring the pressure of perfection as well as feelings of loneliness and depression. As a family member, friend, or loved one of a person in recovery, it’s important to keep in mind the struggles that often come along with that process.

Thanksgiving can create many triggers for people in recovery. The biggest trigger is the presence of substances, such as alcohol. Other issues like family dynamics or criticism can also cause an overwhelming amount of stress. To make a safe, comfortable environment for someone in recovery, you may want to consider a few simple changes to your holiday traditions.

How to Prevent Triggers

As each person experiences recovery differently, it can be tough to know which triggers to avoid. For example, some people may be comfortable talking about their recovery or may not be bothered by the presence of alcohol. As a rule of thumb, though, there are a few ways you can help ensure that triggering situations will be kept to a minimum:

  • Remove alcohol and other substances. If someone is in recovery for an alcohol use disorder, the presence of alcohol can make them feel very uncomfortable. Let other attendees know not to bring alcohol. It is also a good idea to steer clear from conversations about alcohol as well.
  • Avoid talking about recovery or past mistakes. If a person wants to talk about their recovery, they will bring it up themselves. Recovery can bring out feelings of remorse or regret in a person, and they may not be comfortable speaking about it with others. Try to keep conversations focused on the present and the future.
  • Allow for distractions. Often, the best way to help someone overcome triggers is to let them disconnect from their thoughts for a bit. Don’t feel bad if they use their phone or other devices. You can even provide fun options, such as board games to play, fun books to read or movies to watch.
  • Have a plan. It’s better to have a plan prepared and not need it. If the person is experiencing high levels of stress, have a way for them to get away or at least take time to recover. You could offer to drive them home or take them to a more comfortable location in your residence to gather their thoughts. You don’t want them to feel trapped in a specific situation or location.
  • Be supportive. You can help ease their mind by simply being there for them. Whether they’ve talked to you about it or not, understand that they’re likely going through a difficult time. Be there for them in a way that makes them feel comfortable, and try not to push them to do things they’re uncomfortable doing.
  • Ask them how to make the event more comfortable. If you feel it’s appropriate, it could also be helpful to speak to the person in recovery directly. There may be triggers you hadn’t thought of, and a conversation can help you to better prepare a trigger-free Thanksgiving that everyone can enjoy.

How to Have a Good Thanksgiving While in Recovery

If you are recovering from an addiction, the holidays can seem overwhelming. Friends, family members and loved ones are concerned with your well-being, and they may unintentionally say things that hurt or trigger you. Recovery is about setting a course for the future and replacing negative processes with positive ones. For these reasons, the holidays are actually a great time to reach new levels in your recovery and challenge yourself to respond to tough situations in a positive, healthy way.

Before attending a holiday gathering, there are a few ways you can better prepare yourself. Some tips include:

  • Rehearse a response. If someone does ask you about your recovery, you are not obligated to tell them anything. To avoid awkward situations, however, you can think of a simple way to respond or change the subject. For example, “It’s going well! How has work been?” This way, you won’t be left scrambling to think of a way to approach the question.
  • Have an exit plan. You don’t need to leave the celebration entirely, but you should have a plan for how to handle yourself if things become too overwhelming. It may be a good idea to have somewhere to go or someone accompany and talk to you during these tough moments.
  • Find something alcohol-free to sip. If your past Thanksgivings used to be filled with alcohol use, now’s the time to find other ways to enjoy the day. Try out some tasty fall-themed drinks or create a new refreshment entirely! It’s the season of pumpkin, apples and cinnamon — enjoy!

If you or someone you love is struggling with a substance use disorder or co-occurring mental health condition, The Recovery Village can help. Contact us today to learn more about treatment plans and programs that can work well for you.

  • Sources

    Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. “Holiday Stress.” December 12, 2006. Accessed November 5, 2019.

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