In November and December, during the six weeks from Thanksgiving through New Years, our schedules fill up with celebrations and festivities. While the holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year for some, it’s one of the hardest times of the year for others.
For those with substance use disorder, the holidays often come with challenges. The biggest seasonal challenges are holiday triggers – a term that refers to any behaviors or activities that can tempt those with substance abuse disorder to lean toward substance misuse during the holidays.
Triggers are something that all in recovery manage, but more work is needed during the holidays to minimize, address, and cope with triggers. And since knowledge is power, the first step in navigating holiday-specific triggers is knowing what they are.
Common Holiday Triggers (And How to Respond to Them)
Stress is arguably the #1 trigger during the holiday season. Multiple studies have shown that at least half of all Americans feel more stress during the holidays. This stress can, in turn, lead to anxiety and/or depressed feelings. Unfortunately, turning to substances can be a way to escape or find relief from stress, anxiety, and depression.
We encourage those in recovery to monitor their stress and use healthy routines (and therapeutic support) to address and cope with their stressful feelings and thoughts during the holidays. Stress can never be prevented – but a good routine and healthy coping strategies can make it more manageable.
While “stress” is a pretty broad trigger, there are also specific stress-related factors that can be considered holiday triggers:
- Busy Schedules: Our busy holiday schedules make it harder to find time to meditate, journal, attend recovery meetings, and exercise. In other words, holiday schedules make it harder for those in recovery to engage in healthy, grounding activities. In addition to feeling stress because of a busy schedule, it can be harder to engage in stress management activities. With this in mind, we encourage people in recovery to attend as many supportive meetings as possible during the holidays, as well as to ensure that your busy schedule includes time with friends and family who are supportive.
- Finances: There’s no way around it: the holidays are pricey. From traveling to contributing food to gatherings to gift shopping, there are often additional expenses to account for. This is another contributing factor to higher stress levels during the holidays. For this trigger specifically, we encourage those in recovery to know and understand their budget before the holidays. It’s also helpful to remember that gifts are not the most important part of the season. Instead, remember that the holidays are about practicing gratitude and thankfulness, as well as spending quality time with loved ones.
Parties & Events
While festive gatherings are a staple of the holiday season, they can be triggering for those in recovery, particularly for those who have recently reached sobriety. Because alcohol is present at most of these gatherings, it’s common for those in recovery to feel uncomfortable or isolated when they cannot drink with family or friends. We encourage those in recovery to skip any gatherings that they do not feel comfortable attending. Health and sobriety are always more important than accepting an invitation, particularly if you have concerns about how friends and family might accidentally (or intentionally) make you feel about your sobriety.
Preparing for the Holidays
With the holidays approaching quickly, now is the time to prepare and ensure that you (or a loved one in recovery) are ready to navigate seasonal triggers. In addition to using the specific recommendations above, these general tips and behaviors can help you prepare for the weeks ahead:
- Stay mindful of how you’re feeling (and seek out support). Emotional triggers such as stress and anxiety are more prevalent during the holiday season. It’s important for those in recovery to check in with themselves frequently and to use their support networks to navigate negative emotions such as anger, guilt, sadness, and shame. We especially recommend working with a professional who can help you feel more prepared to deal with triggers. Remember that everyone struggles with something, and it’s OK to seek support so you are not struggling alone.
- Establish firm boundaries for yourself. Boundaries will help you stay accountable to your sobriety, as well as better communicate with your loved ones and friends. A boundary might look like telling yourself (and others) that you will leave events early if they become overwhelming. Setting boundaries now will also make it easier for you to say “no” whenever you need to during the holidays. Remember: it’s okay to say no to any invites or behaviors that will make you uncomfortable and risk your recovery.
- Start new traditions. Many people in recovery find themselves missing traditions they can no longer partake in for one reason or another. If this is the case, consider creating new traditions for yourself! These traditions can involve friends and family alike or be solo activities. No matter what tradition you start, the purpose behind it should be to enjoy the holidays in a way that speaks to you.
While the holidays can be a challenging time of year, our team knows that navigating it is possible. We are proud to help our mothers make significant steps towards a better life for themselves and their families, which includes helping them through the holiday season.
From our family to yours, may you have a safe, healthy, and happy holiday season!