Sobriety and the holidays

Being in recovery requires daily work and is not something anyone takes lightly. But the upcoming holiday season can make sobriety all the more challenging for a number of reasons.

In this blog we will discuss why this time of year is more challenging, the stages of relapse and techniques for dealing with urges.

What is it about the holiday season that makes sobriety more challenging?
There are many reasons that those struggling with addiction find the holidays a particularly stressful time. Some of those reasons include:

  1. Financial stressors:
    Many of us feel an added financial pressure during the holidays. Buying gifts, attending get togethers and socializing more can cause stress that can potentially trigger a relapse.

  2. Social Pressure:
    Whilst it is great to be invited to social gatherings, this can be triggering for those dealing with alcohol or substance abuse issues as many gatherings seem to centre around alcohol. If someone has not shared with their co-workers or friends about their struggles with addiction it can be uncomfortable to be offered a drink in a social situation and even more uncomfortable to feel the need to explain why you won’t be partaking.

  3. Family Dysfunction:
    Many people who struggle with addiction issues have experienced family dysfunction or trauma. Society places a pressure on us to enjoy “the most wonderful time of the year” with friends and family, but if those people are triggering for the person experiencing addiction issues, this can be detrimental to their recovery and can trigger a relapse.

The stages of relapse:

It is easy to think of relapse as the event, however, relapse is a process and can begin weeks or months before the physical relapse takes place.

There are three stages of relapse:

  1. Emotional relapse:
    According to Staying Sober: A Guide For Relapse Prevention, this stage involves the following signs/symptoms;
    – Anxiety
    – Intolerance
    – Anger
    – Defensiveness
    – Mood Swings
    – Isolation
    – Not asking for help
    – Not going to meetings
    – Poor eating habits
    – Poor sleep habits
    In this stage you aren’t necessarily even thinking about a physical relapse, but the restlessness, irritability and discontentment is setting someone up for a potential relapse.

  2. Mental Relapse:
    According to Staying Sober: A Guide For Relapse Prevention, this stage involves the following signs/symptoms;
    – Thinking about people, places and things you used with
    – Glamorizing past addictions
    – Lying
    – Hanging out with old friends you used with
    – Fantasizing about using
    – Thinking about relapsing
    – Planning your relapse around other people’s schedules
    This can begin with idle thoughts, but can progress quickly.

  3. Physical Relapse:
    Without intervention and support at the earlier stages, physical relapse can occur. When dealing with addictions, or supporting someone with addictions issues, it is important to focus our efforts on the earlier two stages. The early warning signs should not be ignored if relapse is to be prevented.

Techniques for dealing with urges:

  1. Take care of yourself:
    This might sound insignificant at first but it can be something that quickly snowballs. For example, if you aren’t sleeping well and you aren’t eating healthily, you will quickly feel exhausted and this can lead to wanting to feel an “escape” leading you down a path back to your addiction.

  2. Remember why people use: (
    There are many reasons why people use, but it typically boils down to the following:
    – To escape
    – To relax
    – To reward yourself
    Therefore if you aren’t using the first technique you will end up in a situation where you want to escape. If you aren’t managing your stress, you will look to use to create a sense of peace and relaxation.

  3. Don’t let the “fantasy” take over:
    When going through the stages of relapse, it is easy to tell yourself that you will be able to control your use this time. “I’ll just have one drink”. Try to remind yourself of the reality as it has played out in your life before, one drink leads to another and another, will you feel disappointed? Does it still seem appealing? Remind yourself of the negative consequences of your addictions in the past, what potential consequences would a relapse have on your life? Remind yourself that this is not something you have had control over in the past.

  4. Tell someone:
    Call a friend, a sponsor, or someone you have received support from. Be completely honest with them about how you are feeling and what you are thinking. Speaking these urges out loud takes away some of their power and reminds you that you aren’t dealing with this alone.

  5. Distract yourself:
    Sitting alone with your urges will make it all the more challenging. Go out for a walk, visit a friend, go to a meeting, engage in a hobby.  Staying busy can help the urge to pass.

  6. Remember recovery is one day at a time:
    Thinking too far into the future can be incredibly overwhelming even for those who have been sober for a number of years.Don’t think about whether you can be sober forever.  Take baby steps, and some days recovery will feel like an hour-by-hour process.

  7. Reach out for mental health support:
    Look for a trained and registered mental health professional with experience treating those with addictions issues. Encourage family and friends to seek out their own support too so that they aren’t overwhelmed or enabling you

Final thoughts:

Whether you are someone with an addiction or a family or friend of someone who is dealing with addiction, it is important to recognize the holiday’s as a potentially triggering time. Check in regularly with how you are feeling and stay vigilant for signs of emotional and mental relapse, before physical relapse occurs. Set realistic expectations around the holidays including around financial and social obligations.

Remember there is help available and don’t be afraid to ask for it. You deserve to be loved and supported on your journey to sobriety!

If you are reading this and don’t struggle with addictions, remember to be kind and considerate at holiday gatherings. Always have non-alcoholic options available and don’t press someone who declines a drink.

Additional resources:
AA Brantford 519-752-5981

NA Brant 1-888-811-3887

St. Leonards Crisis Line 519.759-7188

Bellwood Health Services Toronto 1-866-515-2467