Christmas and New Year, and the consequent time spent with family, can often be a difficult time for those recovering from addiction. The holiday season can cause many recovering addicts to relapse, especially those that have suffered from alcohol dependency and addiction.
Why are recovering addicts more likely to relapse over Christmas and New Year?
Stress is the most common trigger for addiction
The Christmas period, including the lead up to Christmas and subsequent New Year’s celebrations, can be a stressful time, and not just for those recovering from addiction. A lot of people exert themselves too much, physically, socially, and financially, over Christmas. This can contribute to a massive increase in stress, which is one of the most common triggers for addiction and relapse.
The pressure to spend money on gifts for friends and family can lead many people to overspend and possibly increase the amount of borrowing they have or leave them with less money for essentials and bills. The holiday period can also be an expensive time of year in terms of events and activities. Many people feel that they need to attend as many events or activities as they can, often spending more money than they planned or should as a result. Work meals, meals with friends, family meals, work nights out, nights out with friends, costly activities, the money spent to attend or at these events can quickly add up.
Financial worries can raise stress levels considerably. Add the fact that many people feel intense pressure to increase their social commitments to the point of burn out as well as the physical stresses of eating more, numerous late nights, shopping, wrapping, preparing, and increased anxiety, and it’s easy to see how stress levels can become extremely high. When stress levels become seemingly insurmountable, many people end up self-medicating with alcohol or drugs to manage their stress.
When you can’t beat them, join them?
For approximately a month around Christmas and New Year, there is a huge increase in social events in which drinking alcohol plays a large part. The charity Drinkaware reported that over 60% of drinkers in the UK over-indulged in alcohol consumption during the festive season.
With so many people drinking more alcohol than normal, it comes as no surprise that many people feel pressured into drinking more. Many of those polled by Drinkaware feel extra pressure to drink on New Year’s Eve and Christmas Day (29% and 20% respectively) but, interestingly, a third of people feel more pressure to drink at their work’s party (33%) than at other times of the year.
With the increased likelihood of being around people that are drinking alcohol and the added pressure of “fitting in” with peers, friends, and family, it can cause many recovering alcoholics to relapse and start drinking again. This is especially the case for those in the early stages of recovery.
Family, friends, and other people
Christmas is often seen as a time of the year when families and other social groups should come together, and at many family gatherings it is expected that everyone should put aside their differences and get along.
This can be particularly difficult for many recovering addicts as they may come into contact with family members or former friends, colleagues, or acquaintances that they actively try to avoid most of the time due to the impact they may have on their sobriety. Some people recovering addicts can come into contact with over Christmas and New Year can even be a major trigger for their addiction. This is especially the case if there is a strained relationship or trauma associated with that person or people.
Spending any amount of time in the company of people that act as potential triggers, let alone the substantial amount of time that can be spent with them around Christmas, can be an immense source of stress, anxiety, and even depression, all of which can lead to relapse.
Loneliness at Christmas and New Year
Above almost any other time of the year, Christmas and New Year can be a period where isolation and loneliness is felt the most.
Whilst everyone else is out socialising and seemingly enjoying themselves, some recovering addicts and alcohol dependants can feel like they’re missing out, are isolated with little support, or that they can’t take part in any social activities for fear of relapse.
Many people that are supportive of those in recovery may also exclude former addicts from certain activities, innocently thinking they are doing the right thing by not exposing them to potential triggers. This can leave the person in recovery feeling left out, isolated, and lonely.
Loneliness and isolation can be a trigger for many recovering addicts who could turn to their addiction and relapse as a way to numb or manage these feelings.
How to overcome or manage the triggers for addiction at Christmas and New Year and how to help people in recovery
If you are recovering from addiction yourself or know someone that is, it is worth remembering that just because this period of the year has many triggers for addiction associated with it, it does not guarantee a relapse. There are many things that can be put in place to manage the triggers or avoid them altogether.
Below, we’ve listed some strategies to help you avoid potential addiction triggers. If you know someone who is recovering from addiction, it may be worth bearing these in mind during the festive season to help them.
Be aware of triggers for addiction
As part of the addiction recovery process, you will likely have identified some of the triggers for your addiction. Over Christmas and New Year, it would be worth reminding yourself of what could potentially trigger a relapse so that you can be aware of them and proactively manage them.
Stick to healthy habits
Remember the HALT acronym (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired) – many common triggers for addiction can come from these. Take care of your physical, mental, and emotional state; eat well, get plenty of sleep, drink plenty of water, practice mindfulness, exercise – whatever works for you.
Stress and anxiety are major causes of relapse and there is a chance that your stress and anxiety levels will be elevated around Christmas and New Year. If you are aware of stress-relieving practices or activities, have them in your back pocket so that you can do them when you feel yourself getting stressed or before you enter a potentially stressful situation.
If you don’t know of any stress reducing techniques, research and find a few that work for you or talk with your recovery specialist or GP who should be able to point you in the right direction.
Make a relapse avoidance plan
You may find your calendar filling up with potentially triggering events and activities that you cannot avoid altogether or that you would still like to attend.
Make a plan for each one so that you feel prepared with a relapse prevention strategy but ensure that each strategy is tailored to each individual situation to account for differing triggers, locations, and people.
For example, if you’re attending a party some distance from your home where there will be alcohol, drive your own car to the party and don’t offer lifts to people that are unlikely to want to leave early and have no other way to get home, in case you need to. This will allow you to leave whenever you feel like you need to or whenever you’re ready to leave, without having to wait for anyone. Another tip would be to arrive early to the event and leave early, avoiding the time where everyone will be at their most intoxicated.
Bring or buy your own drinks
Most bars and nightclubs have a lot of non-alcoholic options, including zero percent alcohol beers and soft drinks, so these locations generally aren’t an issue for supply. However, in the instances you are in a bar and depending on who you are with, it may be worth insisting on purchasing your own drinks. This way, you will be less likely to be bought an alcoholic beverage by a well-meaning person who could be unaware of your recovery or did not consider it in the heat of the moment. You will also be less likely to be pressured into drinking alcohol if you are not included in the round.
Similarly, if you are attending a party or event where there are not drinks on sale or there may be limited non-alcoholic options, such as a house party or other social occasion at someone’s home, bring your own drinks. This can help avoid temptation and ensure that you have a supply of non-alcoholic beverages that you like rather than relying on there being enough choice at the venue or having tap water as the only option.
Rank each social occasion or event by their risk factor
Evaluate each individual situation you have been invited to or asked to attend and rank them as low, medium, or high risk. Depending on what stage you are at in your recovery journey you will find it easier to make a judgement call on whether to attend or not once you have assessed the risk associated with each situation.
If are in the early stages of recovery, for example, you may want to avoid high risk situations altogether such as a house party where most people will be highly inebriated. A meal with friends who are aware and supportive of your recovery journey or a workplace teambuilding activity where alcohol is not involved, however, could be considered low risk.
Once you have each situation ranked, you can create a relapse avoidance plan for each appropriate to their risk factor.
Keep up appearances
By this, we do not mean pretend you’re ok. It is perfectly ok not to be ok.
What we mean is continuing to keep to your appointments such as addiction support meetings and keep to your regular scheduled therapy appointments, mealtimes, bedtime, etc. as much as possible.
Having your regular routine as intact as possible will provide familiarity amongst all the chaos of social events, family gatherings, meals out, and parties to attend.
If you are feeling particularly vulnerable, stressed, or anxious, it is easier to fall back into your routine and contact your therapist or support network if needed before becoming triggered or relapsing.
Have your responses ready
If you have several social occasions or events to attend over Christmas and New Year, it is highly likely that you will be offered a drink or asked why you’re not drinking alcohol. The chances are, if you decline an invitation, you’ll be met with questions too.
Prepare what you will say to people in each instance where a question might pop up so that you are not caught unawares, which can sometimes be stressful and make you feel like you need to explain yourself.
It is also worth remembering when you are thinking of the responses that you do not need to explain yourself. Sometimes a simple “I do not want to drink tonight” or “I’m driving” is enough. If people push you for an answer or start to probe further, don’t be afraid to be assertive (while remaining calm) and ask them to respect your decision.
Which leads us nicely on to…
Thinking about your triggers and the situations you may find yourself in over the Christmas period, especially regarding family members or other people, make sure you have healthy boundaries in place to protect yourself.
If there is a family member coming to a family gathering and other members of your family are aware that they are a trigger for you, don’t be afraid to voice your concerns and offer up boundaries or conditions for your participation.
For example, if a parent, or your relationship with them, played a major role in your addiction, ask not to be left alone with them or say that you will go as long as you don’t have to interact with them. Or if there was a family event such as the death of a relative that became a trigger for addiction, ask that this not be mentioned.
Similarly, if you’ve been invited to a house party for New Year’s Eve and there is the risk of someone attending that is a major trigger for your addiction, ask if they’re coming and decline the invite if they are. Alternatively, offer to come only if that person will definitely not be there.
“No” is not a dirty word
It is ok to say no. As a recovering addict, it is even appropriate and necessary to say no at times.
Don’t feel like attendance at any events or occasions is mandatory. It is not. You do not have to go if you are worried about potential triggers or the thought of going causes you stress and anxiety.
Similarly, if you are worried about finances you don’t have to partake in every costly activity. For example, if your work is running a Secret Santa, you can decline to take part. If you do decide to take part, you do not have to spend the recommended amount or the full suggested budget limit.
Have that word in your arsenal, ready to use without fear. You are perfectly within your rights to say no and neither do you need to explain your reasons for saying no if you’re not comfortable doing so.