For recovering addicts, holiday stress, anxiety, and depression can be dangerous. All of these feelings are well-known addiction triggers, so, for us, relapse lurks around every holiday corner. At the very least, we must be aware of the unrealistic social pressure to have a joyous, loving, intimately connected holiday. We need to recognize that life is not a Norman Rockwell painting. We’re not going to cook the perfect meals, put up the best decorations, and buy the perfect gifts, and our loved ones are not going to manage any of that either. But still, we are likely to feel as if we must, and they must, and anything less than that is failure. So yeah, there’s a lot of stress, anxiety, and depression during the holiday season.
In the midst of all this craziness, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s most important in our lives: our sobriety. Without sobriety, connecting with our loved ones and fully enjoying the good parts of the holiday season are highly unlikely (if not downright impossible). If we’re with our addiction, we’re not with the people we love and care about. Period.
Unfortunately, even long-sober addicts can revert to old, addictive patterns during this supposedly celebratory time of year. When this happens, we must pause and remind ourselves that sobriety is our top priority no matter what. If we need to step away from the festivities to engage in a bit of recovery focused self-care, so be it.
Often, this starts with a self-check. We can ask ourselves questions like:
- Am I feeling impulsive or obsessive?
- Do I have idealized (likely unrealistic) expectations of family, friends, and holiday gatherings?
- Am I feeling hungry, angry, anxious, depressed, lonely, isolated, or tired?
- Am I keeping any secrets or telling any lies?
If we answer yes to one or more of these questions, we need to engage in contrary actions that support our sanity and sobriety. A few things to consider are:
- Self-Care: Yes, we’re all busy with shopping, decorating, cooking, and socializing, but we still need to get enough sleep, eat healthy, exercise, and take good physical and emotional care of ourselves. Failing to do this adds to our stress, increasing the odds of anxiety, depression, and relapse. If necessary, we may need to schedule some quiet time with our significant other or a close friend as a way to escape the holiday hoopla for a short while.
- Meetings/Therapy/Fellowship: Again, we’re all incredibly busy during the holidays, but now is not the time to cut back on meetings, therapy, and hanging out with friends in recovery. We might even want/need to double-down on these basics of sobriety. When we’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed and ready to relapse, we need to reach out to the people who understand us and can talk us off the ledge, and recovery focused settings are the best places for this.
- Plan for Triggers: The holidays are full of triggers, some of which can be seen well in advance. For instance, parties with booze and other temptations are sometimes unavoidable. If we must attend one of these events, we can bookend it with calls to our sponsor or a friend in recovery. In the “before” call, we commit to sobriety and discuss our plans to avoid relapse. In the “after” call, we discuss what happened, what feelings came up, and what we might want/need to do differently next time.
- Accept Others: People are people, and there is nothing we can do to change that. What we can change is our attitude about their behaviors and character flaws. We can tell ourselves: “So what if my brother puts half a stick of butter on every dinner roll? Who cares if my mother-in-law follows me (or my spouse) around the kitchen making not-so-subtle suggestions about how a ham should really be cooked?” If we can take a step back and accept that the people around us are going to behave however they behave because that’s who they are, it’s much easier to abide (and maybe even embrace) their various quirks. Or, on a higher plane, maybe we can view “acceptance of others and their horrible behaviors” as our holiday gift to the world.
- Get Grateful: Brené Brown has spent nearly 20 years researching happiness. After all that time, she has reached one very significant conclusion: Happy people are grateful for what they have. So, when we feel down during the holidays, pausing and creating a ten-item gratitude list is an incredibly effective way to shift our mood. We can be grateful that we have a home, a job, a family, healthy kids, food in the fridge, that the sun came up, etc. As we practice gratitude in this way, we learn that it’s impossible to be grateful and depressed at the same time.
Whatever we do during this holiday season, we need to stay sober. The best holiday gift we can give to ourselves and our loved ones is maintaining our sobriety by staying grounded in a process of self-care, gratitude, acceptance, recovery, and healing.