We are in the season of holiday festivities. Although various traditions may vary based on family, culture or religion, one thing is often common, stress around meeting expectations!

At a time of the year that is advertised to be filled of joy, smiles, and family togetherness, the experience can be stressful, anxiety provoking, or possibly even dangerous for individuals in recovery. This article is intended to assist individuals in recovery from addiction to help them manage during the holidays. Our aim is for this to be used as a guide for families who want to be supportive of the recovery process. Please utilize all of the tools and supports available to you, including 12-step meetings. Being strong in your recovery program will make all of the difference. Importantly, be sure to review your relapse prevention plan with your counselor and sponsor.

Some valuable notions to keep in mind during this time:

  • Recognize that holidays may be filled with unrealistic expectations for intimacy, closeness, relaxation and joy. Our holiday may not match what is “Seen on TV”. Acknowledging your distress about the holidays is normal, and it does not make you a bad person. Others’ and our expectations are often the predominant stressor and relapse trigger during this time of year.
  • Remind yourself that what you decide to do this year can be changed next year. For example, often individuals facing their first sober holiday are not ready to ‘take on the whole family’ with all of their (hopefully) well-meaning questions or comments. Especially in cases where holiday traditions include alcohol or other substances, a person in recovery is faced with a temptation they are not necessarily ready to handle. It is okay to decline this year and let supportive family know you are needing some time substance free. It may be wise to consider spending time around sober supports and participating in events such as an AA or NA holiday function or ‘Alcathon’.
  • Re-evaluate family traditions. Create new traditions that put an emphasis on recovery and togetherness. As a corollary to the previous point, some traditions may not be conducive to maintaining sobriety or minimizing triggers, especially early on in recovery. It is perfectly acceptable to find alternatives to prior activities that may now seem unhealthy or a risk for relapse.
  • Have a Plan! Do not delay making difficult decisions. Ask if you can spend time with family who are visiting out of town on another day, rather than the actual holiday, so the focus will be on the visit and not on the party. Perhaps arrive early to a dinner and leave early, before too much imbibing takes place. If you have a sober support, bring them along.
  • Avoid excessive free time. In early recovery unstructured time is potentially dangerous. Be aware of interruptions in your schedule, as being held accountable by others, or holding ourselves accountable, can be challenging in light of this “downtime”. Idle time can lead to increased relapse triggers such as boredom, decrease in utilizing recovery supports and coping strategies, and an increase in anxiety and racing thoughts.
  • Be honest with people. Addiction is a disease and taking responsibility for your recovery is positive. With this responsibility comes the need to have forthright communication.
  • Be honest with yourself. Not everyone is going to trust you just because you have made a few changes, as trust takes time to rebuild. Understanding this will help allow for more realistic expectations of others, and less disappointment and hurt feelings.
  • Increase your supports. Attend more meetings, volunteer to help at meetings, get involved with speaking engagements, increase phone contacts, attend out patient treatment, and work with your counselor and/or sponsor.
  • Focus on self care. A primary focus of recovery is to utilize coping strategies and increase our personal self care. Meditation, deep breathing, journaling and mindfulness practices are an important part of this component of recovery.
  • The holidays may bring, with them, a sense of responsibility or pressure to compensate for past mistakes, but this is not the time to run up the credit cards out of guilt or trying to make amends. This goes in hand with self care, as well.
  • Avoid power struggles. Work to keep your communication clear with family and friends around you, to avoid strain on relationships due to unfair expectations. The maintenance of healthy boundaries is vital and it is best to communicate these clearly. Some examples may include discussing the importance of needing time for meetings, changing expectations around gift giving, etc.
  • Incorporate acceptance. Remember: Grant me the serenity to ACCEPT the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

This article was co-authored by Susan Busfield, LPC, LCADC – Clinical Coordinator of the Substance Abuse Intensive Outpatient Program at Center For Wellness and Dr. Gagandeep Singh – Owner/Executive Director of Center For Wellness

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