Avoiding Addiction Relapse During the Holidays

by Courtney Frerichs, LMHC | Posted on December 7th, 2017

The holidays can leave many people feeling like the picture above – stressed and in need of solace! And nothing can make a person relapse quicker than stress. Therefore it’s important to take precautions and create a plan to avoid relapse this Christmas Season, and start the New Year full of faith and hope.

There aren’t clear statistics on how many people relapse over the holidays. We can surmise if drinking and drug use is up across the general population this time of year, it makes sense it will be up for those in recovery as well. Attendance at AA and other 12 Step Support Groups is down over the holidays, and picks up again in January, with many people admitting to relapsing.

The following information is applicable for anyone struggling with any type of addiction: alcohol, gambling, drugs, shopping, food, pornography, sex, and for anyone struggling with mental health issues.

What exactly makes the holidays so stressful:

    1. Family conflict – unresolved or ongoing issues within a family, difficult personalities, and unmet expectations cause stress for all involved.

    2. Financial concerns – thinking you need to purchase numerous gifts, elaborate gifts, or that people couldn’t do without. My personal motto: if it causes you stress, financial hardship, or it must be bought with a credit card – don’t do it!

    3. Emotional turmoil – loneliness, shame, and guilt for mistakes made in your past, the above-mentioned family conflict, and preexisting depression and anxiety can turn the holidays from a season of joy into a season of despair.

    4. Parties – get-togethers with friends, coworkers, and family, many of which might have alcohol present, or you typically ‘survived’ the parties in years past by using alcohol or drugs.

    5. Disruption of your normal schedule and demands on your time. Everyone is busy, and the holidays add an extra element to your already jam packed schedule.

What can a person do to avoid relapse over the holidays? It will be helpful to create an action plan of your known triggers and steps you can take to ensure a successful Christmas Season. Here are things you should consider as part of your action plan:

    1. Know your triggers. Every addict or person attempting to live a healthier life should know what situations, feelings, or events may cause them to relapse and then write them down. Use the acronym HALT to help identify triggers or how you’re feeling at any given moment, and especially when you want to drink, or use drugs: are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired? Acknowledging your feelings, thoughts, and the triggers you are experiencing is helpful in telling yourself that you don’t need to give in to a thought or feeling just because you have one.

    2. Wake up every day and think of a plan for avoiding relapse. The Lord should come first, and recovery needs to be second in your mind.

    3. Evaluate every situation or event that you will encounter over the holidays and identify if your risk for relapse by attending these events is: low, moderate, or high. A person new to recovery may need to avoid moderate to high events, even if that event is a family or work function. Learn to say no and that it is healthy to say no, especially if saying yes puts your recovery at risk.

    4. Cravings and urges to use will pass, typically within 30 minutes. Acknowledge the craving, go over HALT in your mind, and take steps to do anything but drink or do drugs. These steps might be: praying, going for a walk, taking a few deep breaths, or calling a sponsor or supportive friend. Remind yourself of how much you have to lose if you give in to a craving, that you can’t stop and never have been able to stop once you start using/drinking, and that the Lord will help you through this.

    5. Lean on your support system. Who can you talk with to help you prioritize when you’re feeling overscheduled and overwhelmed – a good friend, your pastor, or your spouse? Write out everything you think you need to do and have someone you trust go over that list with you and begin delegating or crossing items off. You should have a list of ten people you can call at any given moment when you are feeling anxious, stressed, or have urges to use. Attend 12 Step Meetings and make it a vital part of your recovery plan. You must work the system if you want recovery to work for you.

    6. Get 7-8 hours of sleep nightly, exercise and eat healthy. It’s been proven that exercise increases the ‘feel good’ chemicals in our brain and reduces stress. It’s also been proven that people get cranky and don’t handle stress well when they are hungry, so you should eat a nutritious snack or meal every 2-3 hours.

    7. When you must attend a holiday function, enlist help. Could you bring a spouse or friend who is supportive of your recovery? Have an escape plan; an excuse you can use to get out of difficult conversations or an excuse to leave early such as “I can only stay an hour because I must work early in the morning” or “I have another event to attend tonight, so I need to leave.” Don’t worry about being rude, worry about your recovery.

    8. Have responses ready ahead of time for when you are offered alcohol or drugs and practice saying them. It’s also helpful to have a non-alcoholic drink in your hand so people don’t offer you something. Example responses: “Thanks, but I’m good (while lifting your drink and showing them you already have one),” “I can’t drink while on this medication,” “A simple, ‘no thanks’ without offering a reason,” “I’m the designated driver tonight,” “I’m drug tested at my job, and I am not going to risk getting fired,” “I don’t drink/use anymore.”

    9. Rehearse answering questions if people know you are in recovery, or if you plan to tell people. Some will be genuinely interested in how you are doing, others may be dismissive or intrusive. It’s okay to avoid answering questions or to change the subject.

    Try: I’m doing great, thanks for asking. How are you, how is your job, your kids, etc.?
    Or: Recovery is a process, and I know it will take time to work out my mistakes, so please keep me in your prayers. At this point you can continue answering questions, excuse yourself and walk away, or change the subject back onto them.
    Ask the question: Why do you ask? This question is a great phrase to use when you aren’t certain what information a person is looking for, or why someone is asking that question. It gives you time to pause, and them time to clarify their question or to realize they were being inconsiderate or intrusive with their question.
    Use nonverbal cues: Let your facial expressions convey shock or dismay if you find a question or comment inappropriate. Don’t rush to speak, and the other person will likely scramble to fill the silence or apologize.

    10. Create new traditions to replace the old traditions if you associate them with using.

    11. Do for others, volunteer and stay active and focus on other people and how you can help them.

    12. Lastly, keep a gratitude or prayer journal. Focusing on your blessings and writing them out changes your frame of mind and keeps you focused on what is important. Don’t let resentment and old hurts occupy space in your heart and mind rent-free. Write out your blessings and give the rest to God – he is better equipped to handle our worries.

Christmas can be difficult for many reasons, all of which are compounded when a person is learning to navigate this time of year clean and sober. Planning ahead and knowing when to seek assistance, such as making an appointment with an LFS Counselor, can help you or your loved ones avoid making this Christmas ‘the worst Christmas ever.’