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The True Toll of the Holidays

November 8, 2020

By Anna McKenzie

The holiday season can be both exciting and stressful, especially for those in recovery. While we look forward to food, laughter, and traditions, we may also experience arguments, discomfort, and distress. Our expectation vs. the reality of life’s ups and downs can be a source of tension. That’s why it’s so important to be especially mindful of relapse prevention at this time of year. Fortunately, there are healthy ways to manage holiday stress and avoid the triggers that can lead to a negative mental and emotional state.

Being Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired (HALT) can put you in a vulnerable mental and emotional state.

Relapse Prevention During the Holidays

Here are five ways to help prevent relapse as you interact with family and friends during the holidays:

1. Be Mindful of Your Feelings

The holidays can bring up a lot of feelings, not all of them good. You may be missing someone or something that used to bring you joy. Or you may be bracing yourself for relational tension or disappointments. Express your emotions to a safe friend, sponsor, or counselor. You can even create a safe space for yourself by journaling your feelings. Just remember that bottling things up and isolating yourself can lead to an emotional relapse, says the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).

2. Practice Radical Acceptance

Radical acceptance isn’t really all that radical. It’s simply a practice where you decide to embrace reality as it is instead of dwelling on what could be (or could have been). You live directly in the moment and make choices that pertain to the way things are. Even if you are grieved about missed expectations, radical acceptance allows you to liberate yourself to embrace reality.

3. Check Your Mood with HALT

Being Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired (HALT) can put you in a vulnerable mental and emotional state. When you find yourself exhausted, irritated, or in conflict with others, use HALT to take stock of how you’re doing and make immediate adjustments to care for yourself. You’re only human. It may be time to get something to eat or to step away and get some rest. Don’t assume that you’re spiraling when you may just need some refreshment, a nap, or a well-timed distraction.

4. Make Low-Risk Plans

You know it’s important to avoid people and situations that may serve as triggers for a relapse. When you travel or see family for the holidays, you may not be able to avoid these entirely. So, make some low-risk plans. If everyone is going out to a bar, ask a friend to be available to go to a bookstore with you during that time. If you constantly get into arguments with your dad, choose some activities you can do together, like seeing a movie or hiking, that will minimize opportunities for conflict.

5. Go to Meetings (or Connect With Your Safe People)

It never hurts to attend a 12-Step meeting when you’re feeling anxious or vulnerable to relapse, especially during the holidays. If you’re involved in a alternative 12-Step community or another type of group, check in with other members on a daily basis. Text friends who understand or your sponsor consistently so that you can receive encouragement and support.

family holiday

Family Holidays: Expectation vs. Reality 

Many times, the reason for added stress during the holidays is due to our expectations or the expectations of others. You may feel the weight of your family’s expectations when you get together. You may feel the pressure of your own expectations that situations go a certain way. These expectations can sometimes lie hidden in our brains: We may not even know what we expected until we feel disappointment. At that moment, we can choose radical acceptance and then reach out to a friend or sponsor and journal about the emotions that came up.

Relapse begins with acute emotional distress. You may not be thinking about using or drinking. But if your emotions start stacking up, you may then begin to dream about substance use. You might think about old friends and places from the height of your addiction. This is a mental relapse. It precedes an actual physical relapse, where you begin seeking out drugs or alcohol and resort to self-medicating. You can catch a relapse in its tracks long before it gets to the physical stage. As long as you remain aware of the signs and connected to others, you can protect your sobriety and maintain a healthy state of being.

You can catch a relapse in its tracks long before it gets to the physical stage.

The Importance of Self-Care in Relapse Prevention

Maintaining your self-care and healthy habits is a great way to protect yourself from relapse, no matter your holiday activities, says staff at the Mayo Clinic. It may take a little extra planning and effort, but it’s well worth it to keep practicing your important habits. For instance:

  • If you find that staying with your family means that you’ll lose a lot of sleep, plan to stay with a friend or at a hotel.
  • Take time away to go for walks, practice yoga, or enjoy some other form of exercise.
  • Plan for coffee or tea breaks, especially when things start getting hectic or rowdy during holiday festivities.
  • Make sure that your support group or network is aware of where you’ll be so they can respond to you and encourage you along the way.

How to Get Help

Holiday stress doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You have the ability to circumvent problems and issues that you know will arise. And when the unexpected comes, you can be mindful of your feelings and default to community support and healthy habits to keep you afloat. The truth is, when we’re realistic about what the holidays bring, we can enjoy them much more than we ever have. If you find the holiday season brings up unresolved issues, we’re here to help. Our workshops are designed to help you uncover and process unwanted feelings so you can continue to grow in your healing journey.