Sober Tools: How to Handle the Holidays during Rehab

AA's and alcoholic anonymous can tell you that the holiday season is particularly hard for recovering addicts or alcoholics. Here are 8 science-backed ways to handle rehab and help loved ones stay sober during the holidays.

Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

In the United States, 1 in 8 Americans struggle with alcohol abuse (Schuckit, 2017). The most obvious reason that the holiday season is particularly difficult for addicts is due to its connotation with drinking alcohol. In fact, most major holidays and celebrations are associated with alcohol consumption and oftentimes excessive intoxication. Think of bachelor parties, Halloween, birthdays, and New Years’ Eve celebrations.


A study on college students specifically found that they consumed significantly higher levels of alcohol during holidays and celebrations (Glindemann, Wiegand & Geller, 2007). These trends of heavy intoxication were also true for other holidays such as Halloween and St. Patrick’s day. Thus, it is clear that holidays and celebrations place cultural significance on alcohol. But what happens when someone cannot participate in these seemingly obligatory rituals during the holidays? People struggle with their addictions even more during the holidays because of this pressure to participate in certain rituals. 


Holiday depression and loneliness

The winter holiday season can be a triggering period every year for individuals struggling with addiction and mental health. Whether their struggle involves alcohol or even sugar, the seasons’ emphasis on consumption can lead many off their road to recovery. Many triggers such as stress, isolation, money worries surrounding gifts, old memories, and unstable family relationships are capable of making addictions worse or creating feelings of powerlessness. Even more, if those with addictions are surrounded by others partaking in certain triggering activities, they may feel as if they have a free pass to use again. While we’ve previously written about managing stress and anxiety during COVID-19, the holidays create an extra layer of social stress.


Alone for the holidays? The holiday season can be like a double-edged sword. On one hand, depression rates increase dramatically during the winter holidays and are most likely prompted by “loneliness, financial pressures, or simply exhaustion.” (Donnelly, 2007) On the other hand, however, the season is also portrayed as a time of joy, happiness, spirituality, and family time. It can be difficult for those with addictions to cope with feelings of loneliness during a period that places such high emphasis on togetherness. 


A qualitative study analyzing holiday experiences asked 26 families to recall their fondest holiday memories and to describe their “successful” holiday (Gram, 2005). They found that families credited togetherness and support in truly creating their most “successful” holidays. This study stresses the importance of support towards those struggling with addictions or other problems especially during this time of the year. 


Moreover, another study discovered that the more people participate in family holiday rituals, the more positive and social well-being they feel (Páez, Bilbao, Bobowik, Campos, & Basabe,  2011). These people also feel more satisfied with their family climate and feel less lonely. However, if they experience conflict during their holiday rituals, their satisfaction with family, life, and emotional health are significantly lower. 


Families must be vigilant to not forget those loved ones in need of extra help during this time of the year. Creating a sense of family and closeness may be pivotal in helping those on the road to recovery. It can be hard enough to stay motivated during quarantine, let alone for something as serious as fighting addiction. If families are willing to accommodate those struggling with addiction and plan ahead, the holidays may become a much less stressful time for millions of people. 


Other Addictions:

Alcohol abuse is not the only addiction that may be triggered during the holiday season. Although drinking may seem like the most obvious addiction-provoking activity during the season, unhealthy or excessive eating can also be incredibly damaging to those struggling with poor eating habits and disorders, or those simply trying to maintain their weight loss. 


Food addiction is extremely real and common, especially in the United States. According to a recent study, 49.1% of adults in the U.S. are trying to lose weight and have been struggling for the past year (Martin, Crescent, et al, 2018). Even more, of this 49.1%, 62.9% of them used “eating less food” as their method for weight loss, along with 50.4% of them attempting to eat healthier with more fruits, vegetables, and salads. The holiday season is not particularly known for its small proportions and healthy dishes. People may feel pressure to lose track of their diets or healthy eating habits in order to fulfill certain holiday traditions. 


Overall, it is important to be conscious of everyone’s needs and struggles during this time of the year. While it may seem impossible to cater to everyone’s needs, there are steps to better prepare for the holidays along with ways to alleviate stress for those struggling with addiction. 


Stay Sober with these 4 Tips:

Depression and loneliness rates increase dramatically during the winter holidays

  1. Create your own boundaries. It is extremely important to let others know whether or not you are participating in certain activities if you are currently experiencing or have a history of addiction (Foote, 2014). Staying clean and planning ahead should be your top priorities. If you do not think being with your family will be the best thing for you, you must set this boundary and inform them of your decision. Many times, communication is all it takes to foster understanding and support from your loved ones. 


  1. Attend support meetings for your addiction before and even after the holidays. Many groups and programs focusing on healing and addiction recovery are open all hours and during the season. For those who may not feel a great deal of support from their families, support from other groups may provide this missing sense of community. By preventing feelings of isolation it becomes significantly easier to stay away from your addictions.


  1. If your family is unwilling to accommodate, do not be afraid to seek out different options during the holiday. Spending the day with friends who understand your boundaries is often a great option for those with an unhealthy relationship with their families. Another option is to volunteer your time at a soup kitchen or any other organization that needs help during a holiday. Ensuring that you have a plan for the holiday will not only help to clear your own mind, but focusing on helping others will also create fulfillment and positivity.  


  1. If the situation is obligatory and you are expected to show up, such as to a work event, try to bring a sober or healthy friend with you for support. You will feel more comfortable avoiding or refusing certain things if you have someone with you who is doing the same. Likewise, they can support you throughout the event if you ever feel triggered by certain activities. If bringing a guest is not an option, plan ahead to have a supportive friend ready on call who will be there for you if you begin to feel anxious or triggered. 


Support family and friends in recovery:

Togetherness and support creates the most “successful” holidays.

  1. Oftentimes, the last thing people with addictions want to do- especially during the holidays- is talk about their addiction. Trying not to pry or give unwanted advice can prevent placing your loved one in an anxious situation where they feel the need to explain themselves (Foote, 2014). Likewise, the unsolicited advice of someone who has not been through addiction may not be the best thing for someone currently struggling with it to hear. Addiction is like a disease, and those with it do not wish they had it. If they are coming to join you during the holidays, they are already trying to get better by seeking out support and togetherness. 


  1. Do not center the event around drinking, eating, etc. Some holiday parties’ main events  are drinking games or food-related. Make sobering up and changing habits as easy as possible for your loved ones by being aware of their needs and as inclusive as possible. For example, providing soda or other non-alcoholic beverages is a great way to include those who are not drinking. It also helps to make these non-alcoholic drinks look as much like alcoholic beverages as possible in order to avoid explaining to others why they are not drinking. 


  1. Isolation will only make addiction worse, so make it a point to be there for them and offer support. Simple gestures such as personally inviting them to holiday events may mean a great deal to those with addiction. As the studies above stated, the more individuals participated in holiday events and rituals, the more positive well-being they felt afterward (Páez, Bilbao, Bobowik, Campos, & Basabe,  2011). The last thing you would want to do is make your loved one feel unwanted during this time of the year. 


  1. Although it is extremely important for those with addictions to set boundaries themselves, it can also be just as important for their families to set boundaries as well. For example, insisting that they cannot come if they are still using may become the motivation they need to fight their addiction. 


Sober Tools

For anyone who knows someone facing these challenges, it is crucial to remain mindful during the holidays. This time of the year could be the perfect opportunity to build trust with anyone struggling with addiction and to show your love and support for them. Remember that if you are trying to help someone with an addiction, you can only do so much. If you are the one with the addiction, then it is within your power to become sober and take care of your mental and physical health. 


Sometimes triggers can happen in an instant, and having immediate support is key. If you're interested in a pocket problem-solver for certain feelings and frustrations that come up, try out mental health app LIFE Intelligence. We're a free download, allowing you to track moods and habits and ground yourself with therapy and coaching techniques. These help your goals feel closer to home, and temptations less overwhelming in the moment. Download for iOS or Android.


Support can also be a great tool for managing stress. As mentioned previously throughout this article, having a sense of community and closeness is a pivotal step in the recovery process. LIFE Intelligence provides a9-step (Mission) program for handling your whole self, career, and relationship success. You can read more about how social support can relieve stress in Mission 6.3 of the app.


Happy Holidays Everyone!

Olivia Simon
December 23, 2020

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