End of year holidays are a good time to review some helpful tips about avoiding pitfalls and setting yourself up for success.
If you do not struggle with alcohol addiction, consider how you can be a better ally to those who do. Check out Recovery Rocks podcast Episode 8. There is a higher likelihood of being offered, gifted, or simply being in the presence of more alcohol and substances over the year end holiday season.
Whether you typically enjoy the holidays or not, you might encounter challenges that test your resilience about sobriety. 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.
- Schedule the social gatherings ahead of time. Especially with the pandemic lingering and vaccine disparities among families, it’s more important than ever to be discerning about who we spend our time with. As always, 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, religious considerations, and those maintaining specific diet plans.
- 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 events with which you are already familiar. Based on your prior knowledge of the host and the type of event they plan, be realistic about whether that event 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 can be difficult. They often entail mixed emotions which are best dealt with by recognizing and processing them. For many, holidays involve unpleasant and even traumatic memories of personal experiences, as well as grieving losses of loved ones. For those who have lost loved ones to suicide, the Saturday before Thanksgiving is recognized as International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. Also for many, holidays can serve as reminders of broader, systemic unpleasant realities — including the genocide underlying Thanksgiving (consider abandoning traditional celebrations), and the capitalism fueling celebrations of religious values (consider ditching the gifts). No matter what you choose to do this holiday season, be intentional about connecting your activities to your values and priorities. Recognize when you are tempted to fall into an unhelpful tradition or pattern (“This is just how we’ve always done it.”) and make intentional choices that align with your current priorities and longer-term goals. Remember that you need to have social support as you process emotions, and support is particularly important during the holiday season. Make it your mission to find your people and acknowledge your feelings and understand that developing new connections can take time as you invest in others and build trust.
- 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. And find more here on keeping your expectations for the holidays realistic.
- 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 and simple excuse to leave a situation (e.g., to leave a conversation, “I need to use the restroom.”), 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 and enforce boundaries. Be confident and decisive– again more challenging than ever with pandemic concerns remaining. Being indecisive invites others to attempt to convince you of their priorities or plans. Being decisive leaves little room for negotiation and sends the message that you are not interested in being convinced. Unfortunately, boundaries often feel uncomfortable at first. Find more here on setting boundaries in general..
- 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. Do not 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, which now offer online spaces. Additional supports include:
- 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.
- Find 10 Tips for Navigating the Holiday Season While in Recovery from Shatterproof here.
- Continue planning ahead to stay strong. Be prepared to respond to the self-sabotaging thought of “I made it through the holidays. Now I can relax and …” You deserve long-term self-care, not just another form of 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.
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.
Sobriety in a New Year: Shari Hampton on Book Recommendations & Healing Racism in Recovery (LCL MA Blog, 2020)
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Shawn Healy, Ph.D. and Barbara Bowe, LICSW
This post has been updated annually from its original publication in 2014. Previous posts now redirect here.