A guide for staying sober and clean during the holidays

Coronavirus & staying sober during the holidays

The holidays can be an especially difficult time for those struggling with addiction. This year, holiday stresses are further amplified by the covid-19 pandemic. Between coronavirus and addiction recovery, social isolation and loneliness has left addicts and alcoholics in more precarious positions, making staying sober during the holidays all the more difficult.

Going home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or New Years can add a layer of stress for most people, whether or not they are dealing with a substance use disorder. With the many celebrations, run-ins with not so pleasant relatives, and all of the holiday expenses, many find themselves struggling emotionally.  For addicts and alcoholics, the stress and emotional turmoil can cause them to turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism or relapse if they are already in recovery.

What makes holidays and recovery so difficult?

The holidays are a time that many feel their sobriety being tested. Living with addiction is already challenging under normal circumstances. Recovery requires a great deal of commitment, introspection and healing from past wounds. Part of the process is learning to manage life’s obstacles and respond in healthy, constructive ways. However, this may feel even more difficult during the holiday season. There are a number of reasons why staying sober during the holidays is more difficult for many: 

How mental health can impact your sobriety

Although the holidays are supposed to be filled with celebration and togetherness, many feel more depressed, anxious and stressed than usual. The pressure to feel “fulfilled and joyous” can have the opposite effect on those struggling with mental health diagnoses, including substance use dependence. According to a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) survey of individuals with diagnosed mental illnesses, approximately 64% of  respondents stated that the holiday season has a negative effect on their condition by making it  “a lot” or “somewhat” worse.

mental heath during the holidays

For addicts and alcoholics, extra stress and anxiety during the holiday season can make staying sober even more difficult than usual. When a person struggles with multiple mental health issues, in some cases, the symptoms of one disorder can worsen the other, especially when stress is heightened. Unfortunately, co-occurring mental health conditions are common among people with substance use disorders. In fact, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), people with anxiety disorders are 2 to 3 times more likely to have a substance abuse disorder during their lifetimes compared to the general population. NAMI warns that those with underlying mental health issues, including substance use dependence, may find their symptoms worsening during this time of year.

Extra stress and anxiety during Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Years can cause some to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. Research indicates that environmental factors such as chronic and acute stress may increase one’s likelihood of substance use and relapse. Against the current backdrop of the Coronavirus pandemic, a time in which levels of stress and depression have already increased for many, things can feel even more challenging this holiday season.

Why loneliness makes staying sober during the holidays difficult

While the holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and celebration spent with family and friends, that’s not the case for everyone. Some people have little family, are far away from their loved ones, are estranged or have lost loved ones. Because of the coronavirus and social distancing measures, others are unable to physically celebrate with their families and loved ones this year. The barrage of images and ads chocked full of happy families celebrating the holidays can make one feel more alone than ever. For alcoholics and addicts, intensified feelings of loneliness and isolation during the holiday season can cause them to cope through substance use. Moreover, because of Covid-19, less access to recovery networks has made it harder for those in recovery to get the extra support they need during this time of year.

Learn more about treatment with a free consultation

If you are considering addiction treatment for yourself or someone in your life, now is the time to take action. Addiction is a deadly disease that has taken too many lives, broken up families and destroyed futures. Liberty Ranch offers free consultations. Call 888-387-1531 to talk to a specialist that can let you know about the treatment options available and help you select the right program.

How triggers can impact your ability to stay sober during the holidays

Festive gatherings and the holidays themselves are wrought with triggers for alcoholics and drug addicts. According to Liberty Ranch Treatment Center’s founder, Larry Lutrell, “The holidays, from halloween forward, are the most slippery time of the year for us alcoholics. It’s slippery because a lot of families are drinking more during this time of year and because the alcoholics themselves drank heavily during the holidays.” Heavy drinking during the holidays is quite commonplace. In fact, according to Beveragedaily.com, Americans double their rate of drinking between Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

Holidays and RecoveryFor those who aren’t in recovery, their heavy drinking may go unnoticed among all of the alcohol consumption. Parties and gatherings also offer easier access to substances. When it comes to the holidays and recovery, addicts who are sober and clean may also struggle, finding themselves surrounded by triggers. Triggers are cues one associates with their substance use. This can include situations, feelings, smells, sights, people, objects and more. For instance, alcoholics in recovery may find that holiday celebrations remind them of the many times they drank with family and friends. Reminders of trauma and abuse can also serve as a trigger. Some addicts associate traumatic experiences like the death of a loved one, abuse, or other negative experiences with the holidays. Being surrounded by so many triggers can make staying sober during the holidays hard, especially during the early stages of recovery.

Financial stress and over commercialization of the holidays

For many, expectations and financial pressure during the holidays creates feelings of guilt and stress. Combining the expenses of the holidays and recovery pressures can cause some addicts to use drugs or alcohol to avoid their negative feelings. Not being able to afford the latest gift for one’s child or loved one does not feel great.  Between the numerous events, gifts and travel, it’s not hard to feel stressed about mounting holiday expenses. Social media, advertisements, and deep discounts can further anxieties, making it seem as if splurging is a necessary part of the holidays. According to a survey conducted by Credit Karma, 82 percent of respondents indicated that holiday spending was a source of personal stress. For addicts, this stress can push them closer to relapse.


Talking to a loved one about getting help during the holidays

For many, the holidays are spent with family or friends. This may mean seeing with a loved one whose substance abuse concerns you. If you are worried about a loved one substance use disorder, you don’t have to sit idly by. Especially when overdose is an all too real possibility. Friends and family can be instrumental in encouraging a person to get help. Although you cannot force someone to attend treatment, there are a number of ways you can encourage them to seek help without inadvertently enabling their addiction. Check out our guides on how to talk to your adult child, teenager, parent or significant other about their addiction and getting treatment. Contact Liberty Ranch for a free consultation for more help.

Facing difficult and uncomfortable situations

The holidays are full of events with co-workers, family and friends. For addicts and alcoholics, this can also mean running into judgmental relatives, people they previously used with, or even people who have been hurt by their addiction. This can make staying sober during the holidays feel like quite a challenge. Emotions and anxieties surrounding these interactions can make having “just one drink” seem like an immediate solution for those facing addiction. Individuals who have yet to begin their recovery journey may find themselves drinking and using more during this time, while those already in recovery may struggle with staying sober during the holidays. Underlying tensions, unresolved issues, resentments, hostility and guilt can make it hard to keep a balance between celebrating the “joyous” holidays and recovery. Additionally, pushy relatives and friends inquiring about why a person isn’t drinking can further worsen the situation. 

Dealing with exhaustion

Navigating the work, personal and familial commitments during the holidays can feel like a lot, especially for addicts and alcoholics in recovery. In general, prioritizing recovery requires a great deal of energy and commitment. It can feel overwhelming to keep up with the many obligations of the holidays and recovery.This can be quite exhausting and stressful, making it hard to remain focused on one’s sobriety and recovery. 


10 Tips for staying sober during the holidays

For those in recovery, the holidays can be an especially trying time. Despite the many challenges, staying sober during the holidays is possible. In order to avoid the pitfalls and manage holiday season triggers, it’s important to plan ahead and prepare for potential obstacles. Try the following:

How to stay sober during the holidays

1. Prepare sober strategies ahead of time: Given how stressful the holidays can be, it’s important to plan ahead and think about how to respond to difficult situations one may encounter. Once the stress has already set in, thinking clearly can be much more challenging. For this reason, it can be helpful to begin the holidays with a set of prepared strategies. Thinking through situations, events and interactions that may trigger cravings or negative emotions can help you prepare healthy responses that prioritize your sobriety. You may even want to write out a list ahead of time. For example, if you know family dinners are triggering, it can be helpful to know when and where to find nearby NA or AA meetings. 

Also consider keeping recovery materials such as books, podcasts, videos and journals on hand, if you find them helpful. That way, when cravings hit, you will be ready to respond. At events and parties, keep a glass of soda or juice in your hand so people will be less likely to offer you a drink. Also, it’s always good to have a backup plan or exit strategy prepared in case something goes wrong and you feel concerned about your recovery. Remember, right now your sobriety is a top priority.  

2. Know how to recognize and avoid triggers: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Years are wrought with triggers, making staying sober during the holidays especially challenging. Indeed, it is likely that you will be exposed to some triggers during this time. If you can, avoid unnecessary ones. But some triggers may be unavoidable. Do your best to identify potential triggers ahead of time. This will allow you to prepare responses rather than being caught off guard. For instance, if you know your judgmental aunt makes you feel ashamed, it’s okay to avoid engaging in conversation or to excuse yourself. If you think a situation will put your sobriety at risk, there is no shame in extricating yourself or simply declining to discuss sensitive subjects. In some cases you can’t plan ahead, but you can still equip yourself with a set of general responses that help you manage your emotions and navigate the trigger-laden holidays.

3. Be aware of your limits: With all the holiday activities, it is easy to get carried away and find yourself in uncomfortable, difficult situations that test your sobriety. It’s important to check-in with yourself regularly during this stressful period to see how you are feeling, especially when you are in triggering situations. Stop and ask yourself what is going on with your emotions, mind, and body. Try and put labels on the emotions and feelings so that you take stock and can respond rationally.  Also, don’t forget to get rest and eat well. Being tired or hungry can make a person quite irritable and lead them to make rash decisions. If you can, think ahead of time about the situations and circumstances that might compromise your sobriety and set limits for yourself and behaviors you will tolerate from others. For example, if you are at a party where everyone seems to be extremely inebriated or is pushing alcohol on you despite the fact that you have declined, you can ask them to please respect your decision or simply leave. 

4. Prioritize your recovery: Remember, your sobriety is your top priority. Without it, you won’t be a “good” child, sibling, partner, parent, or friend to anyone. This means taking time for yourself when you need it, even if others object. Although disappointing people is not fun, you have to practice self-care and protect your wellbeing, first and foremost. Otherwise, you won’t be able to show up for others in the ways you intend to.  When it comes to making a decision between the holidays and recovery, your sobriety should always come first.

5. Say “no”:  Saying no is not easy, but it’s important to be able to do so. Especially during the holidays when many feel pressure to attend events and be with family and friends. For instance, your parents may try and guilt you into attending a relative’s event, even though you know the situation will be triggering and threaten your sobriety. It is okay to decline invitations or avoid situations that you aren’t prepared to handle, even if others are upset by it. Although it can be scary, being in touch with your needs and setting personal boundaries around them will have a positive impact on your wellbeing and your relationships in the long run.

6. Get support: Having a support system is critical to the recovery process, especially during difficult and emotional times. If you know that parties or family events are especially triggering and make you want to relapse, try bringing a sober and supportive friend along with you to help ground you. Also, think about people close to you that you can lean on and talk to when you are struggling. Be it a parent, friend, relative, sponsor or someone else, it’s always good to have a few people to reach out to when things are hard. Sometimes something as simple as talking about your feelings can go a long way. Also, it can be helpful to let those you trust know that this time of year is hard for you and ask for extra support ahead of time. If you can be clear about what you need from them, even better. That way, the person can know how to best be there for you as you manage the holidays and recovery.

7. Create new memories and traditions: For many in recovery, the holidays are filled with reminders of overdrinking, binges and heavy drug use. Some dread this time of year, paralyzed by fears of having to face judgement and scrutiny without the aid of drugs and alcohol. On top of that, the financial costs associated with the holidays add an extra layer of stress. Despite all of these negative associations, the holidays can become a positive time. Now that you are in recovery, you can take the holidays back and create new memories. Take the opportunity to develop healthier holiday traditions that don’t involve drugs and alcohol. Some ideas include watching a marathon of your favorite christmas movies, finding your signature holiday dish, or holding a christmas cookie bake-off. That way, you can take the negative power of the holidays away, instead focusing on yourself, your community and your loved ones. 

8. Be of service during the holidays: Giving back and helping others is another way that those in recovery can create positivity while staying sober during the holidays. Being of service is a core tenet of the 12 steps. It is also a great way to honor both the holidays and recovery from addiction. Serving people in your life and community allows you to feel good about the contributions you are making, while helping others. Also, it keeps your focus on something other than drinking and using drugs.Try volunteering at a soup kitchen, organizing an online toy drive, doing something nice for someone you care about, or simply thanking them for how they’ve helped you. By focusing on being of service to others, you can change what the holidays mean to you. 

9. Set boundaries with pushy people: There is a lot of shame and guilt associated with addiction and alcoholism. During this time of year, we may find ourselves surrounded by pushy friends or judgmental relatives who don’t understand the process of recovery. Staying sober during the holidays should be your number one priority. And as such, it’s important to plan ahead for those unpleasant encounters. You may want to come up with a short “elevator speech” for when curious people ask about your life. That way you will be prepared to respond with the information that you feel comfortable sharing. Remember, your recovery journey is your own, and you can share as much or as little as you want. Although a prying cousin or uncle may push for more details, that does not mean you have to share. 

10. Get help if you need it: Just because you are sober, it doesn’t mean that your recovery journey has ended. Sometimes we feel our sobriety slipping or even experience a relapse. If you are nervous staying clean and sober during the holidays, going to a treatment program or sober living facility may be a smart solution.

How to avoid relapse

Whether you have attended a drug and alcohol rehabilitation previously, or this will be your first time, the structured support and therapeutic environment may be what you need to make it through this difficult time. Liberty Ranch offers comprehensive treatment programs for those struggling with substance dependence. The Intensive Outpatient Program takes a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to addiction, providing psychotherapy, individual and family counseling, peer support, life skills training, partial hospitalization services and more.  If you think that you may need more support or are ready to begin your recovery journey, contact Liberty Ranch for a free consultation



Bonus tip – 11. Be proud of yourself and recognize what you have accomplished: One key concept of recovery is taking things one day at a time. This means focusing on today, not on a year or 10 years from now, as that can feel overwhelming. The holiday season can be hard and lead one to feel bad about where they are in life or what they have yet to accomplish. Feeling alone during the holidays can make it easy to focus on what you don’t have. On the other hand, running into relatives bragging about their career or their children’s accomplishments can lead to similar negative feelings and self judgement. First, it’s important to remember that everyone deals with their own struggles. Although acquaintances and relatives may only share the Instagram highlight reel of their lives, it doesn’t mean their lives are at all perfect. Avoid getting caught up in what you haven’t accomplished and focus on how far you have come in your recovery process. Think about what you can do today and congratulate yourself for the steps you’ve taken in your recovery journey. Be proud of yourself because you deserve to be.