The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy. But for many, this time of year is full of temptation and social obligation. If you’re struggling with addiction this holiday season, you’ll want to read this guide on how to manage and maintain your recovery during the holidays. It’s full of tips you can put into practice right now to help you sail through unharmed.
First, we’ll provide concrete strategies for maintaining sobriety and coping with the urge to use. Then we’ll shift gears and discuss the overlap between depression and addiction that affects so many. Let’s get started.
Addiction Recovery During the Holidays
Folks who manage long-term recovery tend to have three things in common:
- They firmly commit to maintaining abstinence
- They make action plans to help them maintain sobriety
- They make lifestyle changes that aid them in maintaining sobriety
In this section, we’ll examine a few concepts that can help you do just that.
When the urge to use is strong, it’s hard to be objective about things. The immediate gratification offered by the drug can outshine the costs, in the moment. After all, the costs are usually further in the future. When you feel the urge to use, it’s useful to put a wedge between your thoughts and actions. One way to do this is to sit down and do a cost-benefit analysis.
- What do I enjoy about my addiction? How does it benefit me?
- What do I dislike or even hate about my addiction? How does it hurt me?
It’s okay—and important—to be honest here. If there are things you like or even love about using drugs, then list them.
Then ask yourself:
- What do I think it will be like to give up my addiction? How will that improve my life?
- What do I think I won’t like about giving up my addiction? What am I going to hate about giving up drugs?
Again, be honest with yourself.
Sometimes, just getting these thoughts down on paper can put things in perspective. Yes, it would feel good to get high right now so you can escape annoying family members, but what will it cost you, in the end?
Some people in recovery find it helpful to carry a small notepad with them and a pen so they can do this analysis on the fly. Simply memorize the questions above or write them out on several pieces of paper ahead of time, leaving space for an answer. Of course, you can print them out too.
Coping with Urges
For many people, the holidays are a time for indulgence. But indulgence in food or drink can encourage indulgence in drugs, too. The just one more cookie logic we’re all guilty of from time to time can morph into justifications to use.
But when you feel a strong urge to use during the holidays, there’s a good chance it’s being triggered by something or someone new in your environment. So the first thing you should do is remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible.
Then, when you’re alone, think back to a similar situation that led to relapse or drug use. Instead of asking yourself something like, Why did I use back then? Ask yourself this instead:
How did I talk myself into using?
Often, the lead up to relapse is a series of mounting justifications.
It starts small, but then it builds over days or even weeks.
So, how do you talk yourself into using?
What justifications do you make? For alcoholics, it’s usually something like, just one drink can’t hurt, can it? They lose sight of the fact that one drink will most likely become five, or six. Cocaine and crack addicts often forget how addictive the drug is in the short term, and once they start, they find it hard to stop.
Another common justification to watch out for is, It’s a holiday. Everyone is having fun, why can’t I?
But what are your justifications? Write them down as they occur to you, and then when you feel the urge to use coming on, start watching for these thoughts. This is called meta-cognition. More on that in a bit.
Stay Sober This Holiday Season
Throughout the holidays, temptation is everywhere. There’s the temptation to overspend. There’s the temptation to overindulge in desserts. What’s more, seeing extended family for the first time in months can revive old rivalries or conflicts. This stress can generate a desire to self-medicate with food, drink or drugs. All of this is hard enough for the average person, but if you’re also recovering from addiction, staying sober can seem a tall order.
But there are a number of core strategies you can use to maximize your odds of staying clean over the holidays. These tips work best in conjunction, so give each a fair chance for best results.
#1 Create Sobriety Strategies
Develop your own sobriety strategies. Think back to times when you intended to remain clean but didn’t. What happened? What was your trigger to use? Stress? Envy? Apathy? Write these triggers down and then think of circumstances that are likely to occur over the next few weeks that might trigger them. How many of these can you avoid?
The holidays are a time for giving, so if you have friends who also use, beware their gifts. To get out ahead of this, consider a strategy that allows you to duck out if your friends start using drugs. This may mean that you fake receiving an important call, or you have an app on your phone that lets you mimic an incoming phone call at the push of a button. Remember, your sobriety is important. If you need to excuse yourself because someone cracked a beer or pulled out a joint, do so. Don’t worry about hurting their feelings.
If they’re really a friend, they’ll understand.
Then, once you’ve left the room, carefully consider whether you should go back in. As a default, it may be a good idea to make your excuses and depart.
Another good idea is to plan to attend a 12-step meeting a few days before guests are set to arrive. Even if you don’t regularly attend meetings, being around people who struggle with similar issues can be helpful. You can even plan to attend a meeting before and after the event.
At a party, one tried and true sobriety strategy is to always have a drink in hand so that people won’t offer you one.
#2 Watch Your Attitude—But Don’t Go It Alone
Don’t try to do this alone. You can’t objectively monitor your own attitude and desire to use. So find someone you can talk to, whether that’s a sponsor or someone who understands what it’s like to struggle with substance abuse. It’s even better if they know you well. That way, they can tell you if you’re acting strangely.
Talk to this person about the emotions you’re feeling regarding the holidays, and be as open as you can. Sometimes, just voicing your feelings can help. If you can voice them, you can acknowledge them. Many people have unresolved traumas from childhood, and these tend to surface when the holidays roll around. If you can acknowledge this trauma, you can begin to move beyond it.
But also keep in mind that your loved ones, family members and colleagues are probably feeling stressed too. This realization—that other people have similar issues—can make coping with stress easier.
#3 Think About What You’re Grateful For
If you’re facing stressful social engagements you can’t get out of, think about what you’re grateful for. It’s best to do this 15 minutes before departing. This mental exercise, or meditation, if you prefer, can help you calm down. It’s hard to reflect on things you’re grateful for and be anxious at the same time. Something has to give.
If you find that you can’t focus enough to do this, then you may be experiencing a panic attack, in which case you should seek help immediately. Especially if you think you’ll use if you don’t.
#4 Help Others
When struggling with withdrawal symptoms, it’s easy to become wrapped up in yourself. It’s only natural. The urge to use is strong, and you feel as if something is missing. One protection against this effect of withdrawal is to be of service to others. Helping others—like volunteering at a shelter—is distracting. It’s time consuming. It’s work. But it can also be very satisfying work. Plus, connecting with others in a meaningful way can take you out of your comfort zone, and that’s where growth happens.
You may find a deep satisfaction in helping others, and that satisfaction can carry you through the yucky withdrawal feelings.
#5 Watch Your Thoughts
Meta-cognition, or thinking about what you’re thinking about, can be a powerful tool. Especially during the holidays, when you’ll be dealing with things you might not have thought about for months or years. As the day goes by, try to catch yourself thinking habitual, non-constructive thoughts.
As you do this, you’ll likely notice that many of your thoughts are repetitive. Repetitive, non-constructive thoughts can affect your behavior. Minimize their impact by becoming aware of them.
A Word on Depression
Depression, or major depressive disorder, is a mood disorder. It affects the way a person reacts to events, how they feel, what they think and, often, what they do. People with depression tend to describe it as if they’re being weighed down, as if ordinary activities are too bothersome to undertake. You may hear things like:
- ‘It’s like I’m walking under water.’
- ‘I can’t find the will to get out of bed.’
- And even, ‘I want to die.’
The holidays can exasperate depression because of additional stress. Money woes, interpersonal conflicts and another year gone by can all contribute. What’s more, those suffering with depression often feel pressure to appear cheerful, especially during the holidays. This social pressure can be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and if you’re not careful, it can send you careening toward trouble.
If you deal with depression, there are a few preventative measures you can take to potentially lessen its impact over the holidays.
#1 Carve Some Time for You
Over the holidays, you’ll likely feel added pressure to make conversation, engage with people and get into the ‘Christmas spirit.’ So it’s very important that you figure out how you will take care of you. This requires some forethought on your part.
For instance, if you know relatives will be staying with you, make it clear early on—preferably before they arrive—that you won’t be available to them 24/7. You don’t have to put it into terms of ‘me time’ or any such contrivance. Simply tell your loved ones that you have something you’ll need to do while they’re there. They should understand.
Leaving things up in the air, hoping to get some alone time and then failing, will just make you feel worse. Yet leaving the party, dinner or other event early will make you feel guilty. Let your loved ones know that you won’t be available 100% of the time while they’re there.
You can’t take care of anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself.
#2 Plan to Avoid Interpersonal Conflict
The holidays are a time for family. They’re also a time for family fights. If you have a sibling, aunt, uncle or other relatives you butt heads with, plan to do whatever you need to do to avoid the conflict. If you know there are going to be conflicts, have a neutral response ready to go.
You can say things like:
- Let’s talk about this another time
- I hear you
- I understand why you’d feel that way
Non-confrontational phrases like these will diffuse the tension.
Keep in mind that some people thrive on conflict, and for them, these little family spats are harmless. But for you, they may represent a huge energy drain. Don’t engage.
#3 Focus on What’s Good
Even if it doesn’t always feel good, you can find something that is good. Oxygen is good, and gravity is pretty handy. Electricity is marvelous, and coffee is a game-changer. Some things are just objectively good—or close to it. Sometimes, if we focus on what we’re grateful for, we feel just a bit better. Even if it doesn’t make you feel better, it can alter your perception so that things that seemed dire just moments before don’t seem quite as dire.
The tendency to catastrophize, to view everything as an emergency or dire situation, is common in individuals struggling with depression. Keep this in mind as you go into the holiday season. Ask yourself, What’s true here? What’s objectively true?
Sometimes, it can be difficult to separate what we feel from what is. We don’t feel like going to work, and in our minds, that becomes the thought, I shouldn’t go to work. This is another cognitive distortion called emotional reasoning. Don’t let emotional reasoning control you.
Ask yourself, What’s true here?
#4 Just Do It
Pain is temporary. Anyone who has ever developed an exercise habit after many years of a sedentary lifestyle can confirm this. At first, the daily workout is almost intolerable. But after a few sessions, these folks realize that a workout gets easier as it goes along. At first, their muscles protest every movement, but around 15 minutes in, things get easier.
The workout gets easier because of endorphins. These are feel-good chemicals that help us deal with pain or trauma. Sometimes, the best way to do something yucky is to simply…get on with it. Often, anticipating the event is worse than the event itself. Sound familiar?
But if you just start, you may find that it’s not as bad you thought it would be. Not by a long shot.
Folks struggling with both addiction and depression often ask themselves, Does my depression cause my addiction, or does my addiction cause my depression?
The truth is these two issues often present together.
One minute, you’re enjoying life and having a good time. The next, you realize that things have spun out of control, and you ask yourself where your joy went. Addictive drugs change the way the brain works. By taking these drugs, you’re fiddling with mental dials that would otherwise regulate themselves.
That’s bound to have consequences.
Indeed, the brain pushes back by developing tolerance to the drug you’re using. It becomes resistant to the drug, requiring you to take more of it to get the same high. You do, and you feel guilty for doing so, and maybe you start feeling depressed. That makes you want to be happy, so you use. And on and on it goes.
Of course, things can happen in a different order, too. Maybe you always felt depressed, which made you feel like an outcast because all these other people get to be happy, but you have to be content with a general feeling of meh. This makes you sad, and you feel resentful, and you just want to feel something. This can easily lead to experimentation with drugs, and that can, sadly, lead to addiction.
It’s a Hard Thing to Think About
Which mental health condition came first is less important than this simple fact: often, drug use starts as an attempt to avoid emotions. Drugs keep you from being able to process negative emotions properly, the way you would naturally. However, this in turn keeps you from being able to accept and move on from past trauma.
It may be that addiction and depression present together so often because the individual is attempting to use drugs as a way to avoid sadness. But processing sadness is an important part of our natural coping mechanism. By processing sadness in a constructive, healthy way, you’re more likely to exit your comfort zone. You’re more likely to take some sort of action that will allow you to feel better.
Drugs are a sort of short cut to this, but they end up being more like a short-circuit, because the euphoria they generate is inauthentic. True happiness stems from self-actualization. Self-actualization is what happens when someone follows their passions.
What are you passionate about?
In many cases, people with depression turn to drugs to escape mental pain. But sometimes, depression develops because of emotional trauma that stems from problematic drug use.
Addiction Recovery If All Else Fails
Your sobriety is important. If you feel yourself coming closer and closer to relapse, consider attending a local 12-step program or looking into an aftercare support program. This will help you re-orient your mind to sober living.
If you’ve had a slip, it may be time to consider checking into a local, accredited rehabilitation facility. A quality rehab facility can provide one-on-one counseling that can help you get through this stressful time of year. Keep in mind that out-patient rehab is an option.
Note: If you’ve been clean for a while and have a slip, you may be able to bounce back on your own. However, having been sober for some time means you may have lost your tolerance. Heavy use at this point makes overdose more likely.
Slip or Relapse?
A slip is just that. The individual uses again for a short time, usually just a day. Then they realize what they’ve done and they stop using before sliding back into addiction.
A relapse occurs when a slip turns into multiple slips. This establishes a pattern of drug abuse that signals the return to full addiction. During a relapse, you may isolate yourself, avoiding family members and friends. You may also stop going to 12-step meetings, and you might avoid your sponsor. If you suspect that you’re in the midst of a relapse, don’t wait. Get help now.
We hope this guide has helped you in your quest to navigate the stresses of the holidays with grace. If you’re trying to get addiction treatment for yourself or for someone you love during the holidays, reach out to The Hills for comprehensive and caring treatment that will help patients detox and learn the skills to cope with their triggers and their addiction. You have options, let The Hills be one of them.