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Sustainable Sobriety Through the Holidays and Beyond

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The holidays can be a stressful time. Money runs low, emotions run high, family gets under your skin and all the traveling during the busiest and most blustery time of year takes a huge bite out of your patience and sense of well-being. Thankfully, most of the time, we emerge on the other side of the holidays relatively unscathed.

But for those in recovery, these stressors can mean the difference between maintaining sobriety and relapse, and that can mean the difference between life and death. Stress is a known risk factor in addiction relapse, according to a study published in the journal Annals of the New York Academy. This study showed that stress exposure reinstates drug-seeking behaviors in animals.

High Emotional Stress in Recovery

But not all stress is bad. The study notes that moderately challenging, short-term “good stress” leads to a sense of accomplishment and mastery. It’s when the stress becomes chronic or highly emotional that relapse is likely to occur.

Cravings and drug seeking are the behavioral embodiment of cellular and molecular changes in the dopamine and stress pathways in the brain that come with highly emotional stress—the exact kind of stress the holidays often bring. High emotional stress is associated with the inability to control impulses and delay gratification.

Saying No to Stress

You learned in treatment that your mind is a powerful tool, and that changing your self-destructive thought patterns is central to recovery. Changing your attitude toward common holiday stressors can make an enormous difference in the amount and type of stress that will affect you during the holidays, and it can make a big difference in how you embrace your sobriety this season.

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Take some time to reflect on your expectations for the holidays and your attitude toward these expectations, and see what you can do about changing the way you perceive and approach them. Maybe you know from past experiences that your sisters are going to get drunk at your family gathering, and the middle one is prone to getting passive-aggressive and pushing all the wrong buttons when she drinks.

Just thinking about it may fill you with anger, resentment and frustration, and you may dread the family gathering because of it. So focus your attention on the positive. Look forward to great food and catching up with family.

Once you begin to identify the more positive aspects of a situation, you’ll begin to see more. When you’re confronted with the negative aspects of the holiday, shrug them off and walk away. Don’t allow them to trip you up. And if it’s about to reach critical mass? Take a few deep breaths, go on a short walk around the block, or call a friend.

Keep Your Loved Ones Near During the Holidays

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, men are more likely than women to relapse. A breakthrough study found that this may be due to the fact that women draw on social support like friends, family and co-workers more than men do, and they engage more fully in their recovery.

During the holidays this year, make a point to connect meaningfully with the people you love—your friends, family members and co-workers. Write a heartfelt note to the people you love, or make them dinner, buy them a cup of coffee, or invite them to drive around and enjoy the Christmas lights.

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Make the spirit of the season, rather than the stress of the season, your focal point. Do things that make you feel good—donate your time or expertise to help someone in need, attend more support group meetings and help others in recovery work through their own stressful holiday situations.

It’s the little things that add up to a big shift in your perceptions and attitudes toward the holidays, and you have all the power you need within to facilitate that shift.

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