How long have you been in recovery? What are you recovering from? How has your journey been? Answers to these questions will vary depending on your circumstance, but one universally true thing is that being in recovery is hard. There is nothing easy about it. Your decision to quit and your commitment to stay clean and sober must have been difficult. But I also know that you have come out better and stronger on the other side.
Whether this is your first holiday season since discovering sobriety or your twentieth, this time of year can be a challenge. While the concept of sobriety and the recognition of addiction as a disease has come a long way in our society, there can still be a shame surrounding the stigma of having had to get sober in the first place. You may feel uncomfortable seeing people from your past as families and friends reunite; they might comment on your sobriety or share their opinions of your actions before you got sober. They may mention things you’d rather not talk about with them or in front of others.
This can also be a challenging time for many people, and hard times of the year can challenge sobriety as emotions and stresses heighten and pile on. If you are trying to stay sober and worried about a relapse during the holiday season, you are not alone, and it doesn’t mean you are any less committed to your sobriety than you were a month ago.
Triggers to relapse during holidays:
1. Increase in social gatherings and the expectation to celebrate:
Whether you are new to recovery or long-established, you may find that you are careful and selective about your social gatherings. You may limit how often you attend or with whom you choose to socialize. You may have set up a system for yourself where you won’t attend a party if you are feeling a certain way or have experienced specific triggers in the recent past. Whatever tools you are using to support yourself through recovery, they are probably undermined by this season.
The increased number of gatherings alone leaves us with many to choose from. Even if they don’t overlap, you might still feel unable to attend them all but guilty about whose you are declining. You might feel pressured to attend events (such as family gatherings) that you know are going to be the worst for you. This might be because your family stresses you out, or a family member you try to avoid will be there, or you and your family used to drink together, and now you’re the only person not partaking. It might be all three! In the company of trusted loved ones who support your recovery, it is much easier to maintain it. This season is often one of excess, and you might not feel comfortable or safe to disclose why you are not participating.
When there is more exposure to triggers, your urges to drink can increase, and there is way more exposure to this pressure during the holidays.
2. Increase in stress:
Before sobriety, alcohol and other drugs became the only way you knew how to cope with your feelings. Whether it was a pleasant emotion such as joy or happiness, or unpleasant emotions such as stress or anxiety, you may have turned to alcohol to help you manage your feelings. Alcohol and other drugs have always been a way for you to manage your emotions, and now you are trying to manage them in different ways.
Most of the time, with a level of stress that you are used to and a predictable routine, you are prepared to handle your emotions and urges to drink or use drugs. When holiday stresses activate and exacerbate feelings, the temptation to cope with that stress by using substances increases. This will be true of all times of the year with added stress, as well as unforeseen circumstances or events that impact you in some way that heightens your emotional state.
3. Feeling left out:
We are wired for belonging and connection. Therefore, feeling like an outsider or left out is a huge threat to our core need for belonging. If we are one of the few ones, even worse, the only one, who is sober during the holidays, it sure can make us feel left out. Even worse, you may feel different, weak, or inadequate for having a problem with drinking, to begin with.
This is a time of year where nostalgia runs high, increasing any feelings of loneliness or isolation that we already struggle with.
The Holiday Blues can lead to a desire to numb our emotions; we might feel that our only choice is between being alone or going to that party. We may also feel left out of things already, even before factoring our sobriety in. Being estranged from family, or missing our friends, can make us feel like everyone is having holiday fun without us. This sense of being excluded can hurt so much that we reach for whatever we can think of to comfort ourselves.
With added stresses, changes in routine, loneliness, and extra opportunities to celebrate using drugs and alcohol, the holiday season is the perfect environment for relapse. If you feel like you are at risk of relapse during the holidays, individual therapy for addiction recovery in our Woodland Hills office can help. Sobriety isn’t about making the decision one day, stopping, and then forgetting to drink or use drugs ever again. It is a process of consistent maintenance, taken one day at a time. Outside of the guidance, you can rely on a mental health professional, you can also set yourself up to succeed by making a plan to support yourself and your goal to stay sober.
Five tips for maintaining your recovery during the holidays:
1. Be aware of your triggers and identify your coping skills:
This is a process best done in a calm and quiet state. When you can take some time to yourself, take stock of your triggers. This is not a perfect process; you may not identify all triggers, and you may not realize how strong one is until you are in a high-stakes moment. That is okay. The important thing is that you contemplate and have curiosity about what you have already observed about yourself.
If you know that it is harder for you to turn down a drink after ten o’clock, you can make a plan to leave by nine to be safe. If you know that your auntie makes the perfect rum and eggnog, plan a different drink that you love that you can drink instead. If you are stressed out and tempted to reach for a substance to cope when you’re with your family, maybe you need to limit or decline time with your family this year. Focus not only on what you want to avoid but what you can do instead. Create a positive goal for each potential negative situation, and give yourself space to struggle with your triggers without being down on yourself.
2. Set boundaries and communicate your needs:
Boundaries can be tricky, but the work is so rewarding. If you are a people-pleaser or someone who has trouble expressing yourself, you might struggle to tell others what your needs are. If you do manage to establish and communicate your boundaries, you might still find that sticking to them is difficult. If you feel that you are wavering in expressing or upholding boundaries, remind yourself why you established them in the first place. Boundaries exist to keep us feeling safe, secure, and confident. If others cannot respect them, that is a problem with those people and not with us or our boundaries.
Whatever your boundaries are: leaving early, being selective about what events you attend, not over-scheduling yourself, making sure to leave space for your routines; stick to them. Create an affirmation for yourself, such as, “This boundary is best for me,” or, “I deserve to have my boundaries respected.” Say your affirmations in the morning while looking in the mirror. Write them in a note on your phone to read when you begin to waver. Ask a friend to call you and say them to you. Whatever your method, if it works for you, then go for it.
3. Stick to your values:
Remember, the end goal isn’t just to be sober; it is about being the best version of yourself. You may find yourself white-knuckling through some tense moments in order to hold on to your sobriety, and those are okay here and there. Surprises happen, and not everything can be predicted and/or avoided. For the most part, however, you should have an idea for yourself that is greater than avoiding drugs and alcohol and let that be your motivation.
Sobriety is a tool to help you achieve your goals and dreams. When you are struggling internally about whether to reach for that drink, remember why you are not drinking anymore. Is it because you weren’t as present with your loved ones are you wanted to be? Were people around you unsafe because of your state of mind? Did you forget important milestones? Did you struggle to excel at work or in your career because you were derailed by being under the influence? This is not an exercise in beating yourself up over past mistakes, but rather to remember why you made this change in your life and the life you are working to build for yourself.
4. You don’t need to go through it alone:
Reach out for support; increase your support systems. That could mean increasing your therapy sessions, going to more sober support groups, or incorporating more pleasurable activities such as meditation or yoga. You may wonder how to go about building a stronger support system, and in fact, this issue may have contributed to your drug and/or alcohol use in the past. The idea that you “should” go it alone or that you are being a burden if you need help from others can lead to the isolation and negativity that contributes to a need to self-medicate. From avoiding talking about pain to hiding out when feeling the negative after-effects of use, drugs and alcohol have a way of keeping people separate and ashamed.
Remember that that is not the way we heal. There is an entire community of people who struggle with substance abuse; there is an entire community committed to supporting those who do. You are deserving of that support network. You are worthy of love and care during recovery, no matter what path your recovery takes.
5. Keep up with your routine:
When we are going through stressful times, our mind is hyper-alert and hyper-vigilant. It feels threatened by the unknown and uncertainty of the situation we are in. Therefore, to regulate our nervous system, we need to rely on our routines and structures to give ourselves a sense of familiarity, control, and stability.
Even though the holiday season will be full of various once-a-year activities, and extra events that aren’t part of your daily routine, you can still find a way to structure your days around routine. If you get up every day to go for a walk first thing in the morning, continue to do so if you can; walk at another time of day if you can’t. If you like to make lists to keep track of errands and plans, make sure your list is up to date. Layout your schedule as it stands, with your existing routines blocked in. Where you are forced to do something else instead, make a note of how many other things that day are still part of your routine. Aim to have as much of your usual day-to-day life remain in place as possible.
I know that the holiday season can be difficult for many people from many walks of life. It is often a time of grief and nostalgia, where we think of those who are no longer with us and wish we could be. It is a time where we are sold the message of happiness and togetherness, making any existing loneliness feel more desolate or separations feel more tragic. It is a time of being too busy and stretched too thin to take a step back and refocus while balancing social events, year-end wrap-ups at work and school, shopping, donating, decorating, and more. You may feel overwhelmed and need support and guidance, which is completely understandable.
Individual therapy for addiction recovery in Los Angeles can help you stay sober during the holidays and maintain your recovery by learning coping skills for stress and emotion management.
Never judge yourself for doing what you need to do in order to feel healthy and grounded, no matter the time of year. As you are in pursuit of your best life through sobriety, know that you deserve that pursuit, and you deserve your recovery.
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