Living in recovery can be challenging — especially if you’re newly sober — because life is stressful. Add the holidays into the mix, and we can end up feeling triggered and stressed in no time. Even people in long-term recovery can struggle over the holidays. That’s because we feel pulled in many directions, have increasing demands on our time, and find ourselves in situations that are uncomfortable. These stressors can become a risk of relapse, but they don’t have to; it’s entirely possible to enjoy the holidays by having awareness of your triggers and trusted strategies at hand so that you can keep your sobriety intact.
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I spent the first few years of recovery dreading the holidays: the family expectations of me, the get-togethers (that I didn’t want to go to), the same family arguments every single year, the ridiculous lines at the store to buy gifts for people that we only see once a year, the office parties with people getting drunk and behaving horribly, and the feeling that I need a vacation at the end of the holiday. Those stressors were not my idea of fun festivities. I spent most of my time in meetings, on the phone with my sponsor, and desperately trying to escape … until someone told me that I didn’t have to do any of it.
That was a lightbulb moment for me.
“I don’t have to take part in Christmas if I don’t want to?! Awesome!” I thought. Once I realized I had the power to decide what I did and didn’t want to do, I felt empowered to make choices that worked for my recovery and peace of mind. Since then, I’ve always asked myself, as with anything else I’ve found that makes me uncomfortable, “Does this feel right for me?”
Solutions for Relapse Risks
I’ve found the following solutions to common holiday stressors that could potentially pose a risk of relapse:
1. People Drinking at Christmas Parties
Once I was clear whether or not I wanted to go, I was prepared to decline drinks with a few reasons to give if people wanted to know why I didn’t drink. I only committed to stay for the meal and then leave. If it was a party, I’d commit to stay for an hour, telling co-workers that I had another commitment that evening. I pre-arranged with a friend in recovery that I could call if I felt triggered.
2. Family Arguments
Simply, I don’t engage. If people want to argue during the holiday, I let them get on with it. As long as I look after my needs and make sure I behave appropriately, I can usually separate myself from others’ drama. I remind myself that I have the power to walk away or ask for time out at any time if I feel threatened or stuck in a conflict.
It’s important to set boundaries. There are certain situations that trigger me with my family: politics, money and discussing my weight. I simply, and politely, decline to engage in those conversations. It’s important to know what your triggers are and to practice enforcing boundaries. Initially it’s really uncomfortable, but after a while, it’s truly empowering to enforce them.
3. Debt & Gift Giving
I spent the first few years of recovery trying to climb out of $30,000 of debt. I became resentful about getting myself into more debt to buy people presents, especially people I don’t see regularly. So I simply stopped. I told my family I didn’t want to take part and didn’t. It was great; I didn’t spend hours in line at the store, and I had more free time, less stress, and more money to actually buy myself food over the holidays.
It seems crazy that you might feel bored at a time with lots of parties and gatherings, but if you don’t want to be there and aren’t enjoying yourself, your brain can look for excitement in other areas. I make a commitment to only go to events that I want to, and plan in lots of activities that interest me so that I have a fulfilling holiday.
By implementing these strategies, or coming up with your own, you can enjoy the holidays without running into relapse risks, despite the stressors. Maintain your sobriety, and try to focus on the positivity of this season.