Staying sober at any given time of year can be difficult, and the holiday season may make it all the more challenging. Although the holidays can be a joyous time of year, it can also be trigger-filled and relapse-prone. The holidays are full of alcohol-fueled parties and get-togethers, potentially toxic and triggering family and friends, a reminder of childhood trauma, or can be a reminder of loved ones that have passed away or who we are not on good terms with. For various personal reasons, the holiday season leaves many sober individuals susceptible to relapse. As such, for those who are trying to make it into the new year sober, it is important to be prepared and arm yourself with proper defenses against alcohol in order to enjoy an alcohol-free holiday season.
Top 10 Tips For Staying Sober Through The Holidays And Beyond
Habitual use of alcohol can result in a myriad of mental and physical health issues. Living a healthy lifestyle in recovery can not only help with mental and physical recovery, but it can also safeguard sobriety. This is especially important during the holiday season, when individuals may be prone to overeat, oversleep, fall off routine, and become less physically active. When one lives a healthy lifestyle they feel better physically, mentally and emotionally and are less likely to reach for alcohol when tempted.
Living a healthy lifestyle is associated with better mental health, subsequently mitigating the risk of using alcohol as a coping mechanism for emotional triggers. Living a healthy lifestyle can be somewhat subjective, but ideally means you are finding balance and embracing health and wellness practices that work for you while minimizing unhealthy habits and behaviors that can hinder progress of health-related goals that align with an alcohol-free lifestyle.
Research has shown that stress cues linked to alcohol use can contribute to a relapse. These triggers are social, environmental or emotional cues that bring about the thought or craving to use alcohol. Habitual alcohol use produces a relationship in the brain that connects daily life with alcohol use and pleasure.
Triggers are personal and unique to each individual, and may include external stimuli such as a certain time of day, the smell of alcohol, seeing alcohol or an alcohol advertisement, or spending time with a certain person or at a certain place. While external triggers are usually obvious, they can also sometimes be subconscious or innocuous, as the brain may pick up on a sight, sound, smell, taste or touch that triggers the individual to think about alcohol and crave it without the person even processing what the stimuli is or was.
Triggers are also internal – thoughts, feelings and emotions that can arise at any time that result in alcohol craving. By identifying your personal triggers you are better able to avoid them, be prepared for them, and work through them when they arise.
Coping involves adjusting to or tolerating triggers alongside negative stressors and emotions. Healthy coping skills allow the individual to achieve emotional balance without numbing feelings or resorting to unhealthy behaviors such as alcohol use. Coping is a process, not an event; and the more frequently an individual uses healthy coping skills the more natural it will become to utilize them during precarious situations.
There are thousands of healthy coping skills, some that may work for one individual and not work for another. Some coping skills may work for certain situations and not work for others. Some common examples of healthy coping skills include using positive self-talk, meditating, journaling, talking with support, exercising, stretching, drawing, reciting a mantra or prayer, utilizing a stress ball, going for a massage, or listening to music.
As the saying goes, if you fail to plan then plan to fail. Planning is important in a variety of capacities when it comes to sobriety. It is important to plan each day in order to maintain emotional and physical equilibrium, productivity, and avoid poor choices. Planning ahead can help avert HALT’ing, that is becoming too hungry, angry, lonely or tired. These are common feelings that throw people off balance that are often avoidable with proper intention.
It’s also important to micro-plan for specific events such as social engagements that may involve alcohol, especially during the holiday season. Planning for parties may entail bringing a support person with you, having support check-in with you via phone or text, having a statement prepared if people ask you why you’re not drinking (not that you owe anyone an explanation, a simple “I don’t feel like drinking today” will do), keeping a non-alcoholic beverage in hand to quench thirst and deter people from offering you alcohol, and having an exit plan prepared in case you become uncomfortable and want to leave early (a simple “I have to get going” will do the trick. Again, you don’t owe anyone an explanation).
Following a schedule can help provide stability during times of change, such as when newly alcohol-free or during the holiday season. A structured routine can be very helpful for individuals maintaining abstinence for a number of reasons. Having structure can help individuals avoid triggers, can reduce anxiety or feelings of overwhelm, and can help implementation of new healthy habits among other benefits. Following a schedule helps individuals maintain accountability and manage responsibilities.
Always ensure your schedule is not overly cumbersome, is rewarding, and be willing to adjust routines if there is good reason to do so. Even during the holiday season when you may be on vacation or when there may be time off from work and numerous holiday engagements, a basic skeletal structure can still be helpful such as following a regular sleep and wake cycle, engaging in exercise, and making time for self-care.
One of the keys to relapse prevention is the understanding that relapse occurs gradually. As such, it is important to have an awareness of what warning signs are and a recognition of when they arise. As with triggers, warning signs are personal and unique to each individual. A significant warning sign includes an emotional relapse such as bottling up of emotions or disruptive changes in mood, such as increased sadness, worry, fear, anger, stress or frustration.
Another crucial warning sign includes a mental relapse, where individuals begin to think more about alcohol use, think about past alcohol use, and romanticize past or future alcohol use. Warning signs can also include changes in behavior from your normal routine that are not in alignment with your recovery, such as stopping to talk with your support system, oversleeping, stopping your exercise routine, procrastinating and the like. Recognizing warning signs involves mindfulness and being in tune with your body and mind, and consequently leaning into your recovery when such warning signs arise.
It’s incredibly important to celebrate victories such as making an appointment with your therapist, attending a recovery meeting, going to the gym, another day alcohol-free or making it through a holiday party or social engagement without the use of alcohol. Through acknowledging these victories self-esteem is renewed and motivation is built which in turn will help maintain an alcohol-free lifestyle in the future. Celebrations do not have to entail anything elaborate, rather the most important part of celebrating a victory is simply acknowledging the achievement and bringing attention to the positive feelings that accompany the accomplishment in order to bolster self-confidence and gratification.
Perhaps the most challenging part of staying sober, yet most important, is healing from past trauma, past and present life issues, and resentment. This is paramount because trauma shapes our lives, be it significant and pervasive trauma such as death, violence or mental, physical, emotional or sexual abuse or more innocuous trauma such as the loss of a relationship or an accident. Experiencing trauma leaves a lasting impact, and while everyone responds to trauma in their own unique way, it can frequently lead individuals with a history of alcoholism back to craving a drink if left untreated.
Similarly, various life complications or personal resentments when not worked through can lead to a host of negative feelings leaving individuals wanting to feel numb. Resentments are so important to work through in recovery that Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, titled them as “the number one offender” of relapse. Healing through trauma, life issues, and resentments are a lifelong journey that takes time, consistency and optimism, but are always possible and very much worthwhile. Working with a mental health professional such as a therapist or psychiatrist is often helpful to jumpstart the healing process.
Researcher and author Johann Hari surmised that the opposite of addiction is connection. Hari’s belief is based off of studies such as the infamous “Rat Park” study in the 1970’s which demonstrated that rats craved drugs when they were in isolation, but would decline drugs when put in a social setting. Other more recent studies have indeed found that positive, supportive and caring relationships are fundamental to initiating and maintaining long-term abstinence from alcohol.
Such relationships are important at all times, but perhaps even more so during the holiday season which can bring about feelings of loneliness or otherness for those who do not drink. This is why having support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery can be very beneficial for some, as it brings about a sense of community and connection with likeminded individuals. Furthermore, having friends and family you can confide in who are supportive, or a sober coach or therapist specializing in alcohol addiction is highly valuable.
Support and guidance is central to initiating abstinence from alcohol, maintaining an alcohol-free lifestyle, and making it through the holiday season without a drink. Studies show that those who successfully get sober and maintain sobriety have done so through the assistance of an alcohol specialist such as a therapist specializing in addiction and/or a recovery peer such as an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and 12-step support system.
Such support and guidance is important for all individuals, but especially for those new to sobriety, those with a history of relapse, and those who are currently struggling and experiencing warning signs of relapse. Various forms of professional help for alcoholism are available such as a therapist specializing in alcohol or other types of alcohol counselors such as a psychologist or psychiatrist who treat addiction. Sober coaches, also known as recovery coaches, as well as sober companions are also very helpful for individuals navigating recovery.
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