The holidays are an important time to review some helpful tips about avoiding pitfalls and setting yourself up for success. Starting with common celebrations of Thanksgiving, through religious holidays dominating December, and into New Year messages of improvement and positive change — the human brain has a lot to process.
Finding joy can be easy at some times in our lives and at other times, we really have to work for it. Understand that even with joyful associations, challenges may manifest and test your resilience. For many of us, this time of year brings with it social engagements with friends and family members that often include potentially risky, if not just uncomfortable, situations where your resolve is tested, whether to abstain from alcohol or even just negative thought patterns.
If you don’t struggle with alcohol addiction, consider how you can be a better ally to those who are. Check out Recovery Rocks podcast Episode 8. It should come as no surprise to anyone that there is a higher likelihood of being offered, gifted, or simply being in the presence of more alcohol and substances over the holiday season.
Maintaining sobriety successfully requires a part in your holiday plans. The tip that underlies all of the rest is, “Plan ahead!” As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
- Schedule the social gatherings ahead of time: Reducing unexpected scenarios can help you stick to a healthy routine. Decline spontaneous invitations that would likely put you in unfamiliar territory.
- For the social events you plan to attend, be deliberate about your intentions: If you have the ability, be the one to throw the party and proactively set the tone by making it a sober-themed party. If you are attending someone else’s party, or an office party, be cognizant of the fact that people might automatically hand you a drink or dessert containing alcohol, unless you tell them not to. Don’t be shy to ask for the ingredients in the food that you are offered – this is commonplace for people with food allergies.
- If you will be traveling out of town, do your homework: Research recovery meetings in the area and plan to call a sponsor or supportive friends on a regular basis to check-in.
- Be selective: Often you will be invited to parties of people you know. Based on your prior knowledge of those people (and the type of parties they throw), be realistic about whether that party will be good for you to attend.
- Have an ally with you at gatherings: Whether it is another friend who is in recovery or just a trusted friend/family member, it is an immense help to have someone “on your side”. Having an ally can help you withstand the pressure of a crowd and stick to your goals.
- Don’t abandon healthy habits: Whether this is eating, drinking, sleeping, or other behaviors, sticking to healthy routines helps you maintain your pre-holiday focus. Overeating unhealthy food during the holidays is common. However, over-indulging in one area can set the tone for “making exceptions for the holidays” which can lead to bad places.
- Acknowledge your feelings: The holidays are often difficult. They often entail mixed emotions which are best dealt with by recognizing and processing them. Identify someone to process your emotions with during the holiday season.
- Set realistic positive goals of achievement: Setting an avoidance goal (e.g., avoiding relapse) is a good foundation. However, focusing solely on avoidance can make all your efforts over the holidays seem like you are merely keeping your head above water. Setting realistic positive goals of achievement (e.g., getting to talk more in-depth with a wise family member, playing fun games, enjoying the company of friends) can add meaning and joy to your holiday season.
- Have an exit strategy: You should always be prepared to respond when things do not go to plan. For example, 1. Be your own ride home or be prepared to use other modes of transportation to get home (carry cab fare, have the Uber/Lyft app on your phone), 2. Have a ready-made excuse to leave a situation (e.g., use the “I’ve got to pee” line to leave a conversation), 3. Use common technologies to your advantage (set alerts on your phone or read a non-existent text and then excuse yourself to make an important call).
- Stick to your plan: Be confident and decisive. Being indecisive invites others to attempt to convince you of their priorities/plans. Being decisive leaves little room for negotiation and sends the message that you are not interested in being convinced.
- Remind yourself that the holidays are just like every other day: Do what works to maintain your sobriety all the other days of the year. A Monday is a Monday, whether it is December 25th or July 17th. Don’t let labels make it more than it is.
- Add in some extra support: Plan to attend more recovery meetings than usual, since the availability of substances will also be more than usual. Explore meeting listings here for AA, SMART Recovery, and Refuge Recovery.
- Listen to Episode 9 of the Recovery Rocks podcast
- Find 7 Tips to Survive Thanksgiving Sober from Hip Sobriety here, and find more on surviving work events in particular here.
- Post-holiday success warning: Be prepared to respond to the self-sabotaging thought of “I made it through the holidays. Now I can relax and treat myself …” You deserve long-term self-care, not just more quick relief. Don’t lose sight of your long-term commitment to practices that help you build resilience. Build in time to relax safely — don’t relax your commitment to hard work.
The holidays are often a mixed bag of emotions and experiences. While you cannot control how the holidays turn out, being prepared to handle typical scenarios can help put you in a much better position to enjoy the positive aspects of the holidays and remain strong in your sobriety. Lawyers and law students in Massachusetts can talk with one of our clinicians for free and confidentially: 617 482 9600.
Shawn Healy, Ph.D. & Barbara Bowe, LICSW
This post has been updated annually from its original publication in 2014.