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How to Navigate the Holidays Clean & Sober

7 minute read

The holidays can be magical. Spending time with friends and family, traveling, parties, traditions and customs… These may be wonderful for lots of people, but if you’re recovering from addiction, they can also be stressful. Being away from your support network and routines could lead you away from your path of recovery. Holiday customs, memories, and events associated with alcohol and other drugs could lead to thoughts of using and maybe even a relapse.

Avoiding Relapse During the Holidays Is Difficult

During the holiday season, you’re likely to be invited to one or two holiday parties. These parties almost always include alcohol. When you are in recovery, being around alcohol can make it difficult to avoid relapse because seeing others drink might remind you of drinking or using drugs. Also, having alcohol available to you makes it very accessible for you to drink. Plus, others in your circle—friends, and even family—may not understand addiction and encourage you to drink or use drugs.

The holidays are also a challenging time because being around family members can cause stress  or strife. If using drugs or alcohol was your go-to for stress reduction, then feeling stressed may make you want to relapse. Besides family stress, the financial pressures of buying gifts or traveling may also arise. Feeling the burden of stretched finances can lead to thoughts of the substance that once brought you relief.

Avoiding Relapse During the Holidays Is Important

At holiday parties and gatherings, those around you are likely to be drinking, and while they may be able to have a couple drinks without the worry of losing control, that’s not the case for someone in recovery. A couple drinks for a recovering addict is a relapse and could throw you back into your addiction.

Taking the time to think about how you’ll spend your holidays can help you avoid some of the triggers for substance use.

10 Tips to Help You Avoid Relapse During the Holiday Season

1. Plan Ahead

Prepare how you will support your sobriety. Schedule time for attending 12-step or other support meetings before or after holiday events. If you meet with a therapist, set up a time to get together before your events or after them. And if you’re in formal addiction treatment, keep your sessions on your schedule, so they don’t slip your mind during this busy season. If you are traveling, look up 12-step or other recovery meetings near your destination.

When it comes to attending seasonal events, prepare an “exit plan,” which can include an excuse that allows you to leave early if you start to feel uncomfortable or out of control. If you have a friend in recovery or a sponsor, invite them along with you to holiday events to be a source of support and fun and to help keep you from being tempted to drink or use.

More on How to Overcome Situations

2. Understand the Emotional Complexity of the Holidays

The holidays are emotionally complex for most people, including people who don’t struggle with addiction. This is because there are usually many family engagements that bring together varied personality types and perhaps baggage from past disagreements and experiences. Navigating the family dynamics of who likes who, who is mad at who, etc. can be a headache and emotionally draining. For a person in recovery, this can be amplified, as your past behaviors when you were using could have caused strife within the family (on top of all the other potential family dynamic issues).

To confront this and understand how it impacts your recovery journey, talk to people in your recovery support group (or a therapy professional) about what the holidays mean to you. What are the family dynamics and emotions that you attach to them? Prepare for holiday celebrations by working with your sponsor or therapist in advance to get a sense of how to process your feelings around the holidays. Also, put together strategies to prepare yourself emotionally and gather ideas for how to avoid family members who may be too triggering for you.

3. Be Transparent

Those around you may not understand what it means to be an addict. It can be easy for some to think that “one drink won’t hurt.” Be transparent with friends and family about your sobriety and what it means to be an addict in recovery. This can help them better understand why you choose not to drink or use drugs, even during fun, upbeat times like the holidays. Plus, understanding your situation can help them become an ally to you in your sobriety.

4. Take Time to Check in with Yourself

It may be overwhelming to be with your family or at holiday parties, even if you have a sober buddy or sponsor with you. This is especially true if it’s your first holiday being sober. You may start to feel overwhelmed, anxious, or angry. That’s natural, but those emotions can also lead to relapse. It’s okay to take time to yourself—away from the group— to check in with your feelings and assess what you need.

5.  Reach Out for Support

The holidays are stressful! If you’ve checked in on your feelings and found that you need help, don’t hesitate to reach out for it. “Help” may come in the form of a sponsor, a loved one, or a friend. Reach out to someone who understands your past and sympathizes with what you’re feeling. You may want to consider attending a group therapy session or support group meeting during the holiday. Attending one of these groups can help put you in a good frame of mind when spending time with others.

Starting or going back to addiction treatment is also an option. An intensive outpatient or basic outpatient program can match your schedule, so you can receive support while keeping up with your plans and responsibilities.

6. Focus on Others

Being in recovery, a basic tenet of 12-step work or increasing spirituality is to give back—to look outside of yourself and serve others. How can you do that? Try:

  • Donating time at a soup kitchen or a food bank
  • Volunteering at an animal shelter
  • Collecting toys for less fortunate children
  • Spend time with someone who’s lonely during the holiday season

When you give back, we switch from thinking about yourself and your issues and gain perspective on the bigger picture of what others are going through. Any time you shift your focus to others in a selfless way, you connect with others on a deeper level. This practice enhances your spiritual connection and your own spiritual condition.

7. Keep Track of What You Are Drinking

This may seem silly, but it’s very easy in a party atmosphere to accidentally pick up someone else’s drink, which may be alcoholic. Order your own non-alcoholic drinks, watch how they’re made, and keep track of them.

If you do accidentally pick up a drink that has alcohol in it and drink it, this is not a relapse. It is very important, however, that you first put the drink down and, second, reach out to someone in your recovery network and tell them what happened. That person can help walk you through any emotions that come up after you have consumed alcohol, like guilt, regret, or shame.

For others, the taste of alcohol may trigger them to want more. Speaking with you sponsor as soon as possible can help you navigate the feelings that arise and put a plan in place to avoid further relapse.

8. Avoid Vulnerable, Stressful Situations

Think about people, places, and things you’ll be exposed to during the holidays. There are some situations that you must attend, and there are others you may have a choice not to. If you know there is someone, someplace, or something that will lead to stress or a triggering event, ask yourself: Do I really need to go? Once again, speaking to someone in your support group about the situation will help you to make the decision that’s right for you. If you don’t have to go, then don’t go.

9. Remember Self-Care

Take time for yourself. Recovery is about improving your mind, body, and spirit. Take in a show, or enjoy nature. Eat healthy, and try to take some quiet time for relaxation or meditation. Finally, do something that can enrich your spirituality. For example, help others, or spend quality time with loved ones. These activities can help you feel connected to others, which is an important part of self care.

10. Create Your Own Sober Holiday Event

Sometimes the temptations to relapse during the holidays are just too much. If you want to avoid relapse during the holiday season but still want to have fun, get creative with how and with whom you spend your time. You can do this by planning your own holiday event free from drugs and alcohol. Invite members of your support group over to your house, or meet one or two for coffee. This approach will ensure you’re not lonely during the holidays and give you something to look forward to. Check out our other sober celebration ideas here!

The gift of sobriety is the best gift you can give to yourself and your loved ones. Avoiding relapse during the holidays may seem challenging, and your thoughts about it may stress you out. If you are feeling worried about any aspect of your sobriety, remember to reach out to a sponsor or a loved one promptly. The team at Footprints to Recovery is a great option for those who need more intensive addiction care. Don’t wait to reach out if you need help!

David Szarka
Medically Reviewed by David Szarka, MA, LCADC
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