The holidays can be a season of highs and lows for anyone, but if you are recently sober – or even several years into recovery – it can be difficult to stay clean during this time.
Seeing old friends and family members can bring back emotions tied to past holidays. These memories aren’t always pleasant and may make you want to turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with the anxiety, depression or stress they bring.
In some cases, we can look back on those times fondly and laugh them off. But for people like you who are trying to keep your recovery on track, holiday stress can have you grabbing for a glass of wine or a bottle of pills.
The Link Between Stress, the Holidays and Mental Health Disorders
Holidays can seriously affect those who already struggle with feelings of anxiety and depression. While it’s a time of joy and happiness for some, for others it can trigger negative emotional responses.
In fact, The American Psychological Association found that 38 percent of people report that their stress levels increase during the holidays.
But why is this? Sometimes simply entering a crowded room or carrying on conversations can produce intense anxiety. Other triggers of stress or anxiety disorders during the holidays include:
- Talking to co-workers at a large office party
- Exchanging gifts
- Large gatherings of people
- Long drives or flights
- Travel complications
- Busy schedules
The Connection Between Addiction and Anxiety Disorder
In order to cope with an anxiety disorder, a person may start to self-treat with drugs and alcohol. They will experience temporary relief and even a sense of euphoria.
Unfortunately, this feeling doesn’t last, so they will try to recapture it over and over again. This can worsen the psychological and physical symptoms of anxiety and reinforce the need to use even more. The cycle eventually leads to dependence and addiction.
5 Examples of Common Anxiety Disorders
1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder: A continuous sense of dread with no specific focus
2. Social Anxiety Disorder: An unreasonable fear of interacting with others
3. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: This develops after a traumatic event
4. Panic Disorder: Episodes of overwhelming and uncontrollable terror
5. Specific Phobias: An irrational fear of an object, situation or animal
The key to getting through the holidays with your sobriety intact is to avoid the urge to self-medicate when trying to overcome these feelings of holiday anxiety.
Learning to Recognize the Physical Signs of Anxiety
Anxiety can even take a toll directly on the body. Those suffering from an anxiety disorder can have a physical response to situations or objects that seem threatening to them. These life-threatening responses can include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Stomach pain
- Choking sensations
- Rapid Heartbeat
11 Tips for Dealing with Anxiety & the “Holiday Blues” While in Recovery
Make a strategy and be ready for any situation that comes up during the holidays so you can survive these few weeks without turning to drugs or alcohol.
1. Practice self-care
Take time to relax and meditate every day. Lower your standards and reduce your demands when possible to help avoid depression.
2. Say no when needed
If you worry that certain activities might trigger anxiety, avoid the gathering all together. You’re not obligated to attend every function, especially if it could be dangerous to your recovery.
3. Make new traditions
Host a small gathering of your own, with people who make you feel comfortable. Or attend a celebration with a Twelve Step group.
4. Ask a sober friend to be on call
Find someone to turn to in case you feel the need to drink during holiday festivities. This person can be a sponsor, friend or family member.
5. Bring a non-drinking buddy
It can be easier to avoid alcohol at a party if you aren’t the only one staying sober. Reward yourselves in the morning with a nice brunch or walk in the park.
6. Bring your own drinks
Pack some sodas or seltzers for any holidays parties you attend. This way you always have something in your hand and you are less likely to be offered a drink.
7. Stay active
You may be more likely to drink alcohol or use drugs if you are sitting still. Make cookies or look at decorations to keep busy. Also find time to exercise or take a walk to help ward off depression.
8. Decide on a response
Not everyone at a holiday party will know you’re in recovery so have an easy reply ready when someone offers you a drink. It could be simply that you’re driving or have an early commitment in the morning. Choose a response that eases your anxiety.
9. Don’t overindulge
Try to keep a balanced diet and get enough sleep to avoid depression and anxiety. Good sleep habits help prevent relapses all year round.
10. Have an exit strategy
Be ready with an excuse to leave if you aren’t feeling comfortable or start craving a drink. You can say ahead of time that you have another party to attend so you don’t feel obligated to stay long. Or even have a friend call you at a certain time and see if you need a reason to leave.1
11. Attend spiritual services
These can help you avoid depression and remind you of the spirit of the season.
Dealing With Holiday Stress for People in Recovery
Think back to Christmas and New Year’s before you struggled with addiction. Do you have memories of arguing with your parents about what you were wearing for the family party? Or maybe you recall the stress of getting the house cleaned and decorated before hosting dozens of people for Christmas Eve.
If you’re in recovery, be on the lookout for some of the most common holiday stressors, including:
- Getting holiday decorations up and ensuring Christmas lights are working
- Running late for holiday festivities, like Christmas mass or a family party
- Buying the perfect gifts for family and friends without breaking the bank
- The pressure to be happy during the holiday season
- Personal insecurities or comparing yourself to friends and family
- Feeling like you need to impress family members and friends you haven’t seen in a while
- Challenging or stressful relationships with people that make you feel bad about yourself
Holiday stress is a given. What’s not is being aware of your individual triggers. The bullet points above are by no means a complete list of holiday stressors, so take some time before Christmas to think about and write down all your personal reasons why the holidays stress you out.