Helpful Hints to Combat a Season of Holiday Triggers

By: Natalie Baker

The holiday season is here, and while Christmas and New Year’s festivities can be a joyous time, this time of year also brings its own set of stressors. And those stressors can trigger substance use. 

Identifying what might drive you to relapse – and having an action plan against those temptations – are the foundational pillars of a successful prevention plan. With that in mind, let’s look at three holiday-oriented triggers you need to consider as we head into the season. 

Trigger #1 – Holiday Stress

One of the top relapse triggers during the holiday season is stress. And many people who struggle with addiction end up turning to alcohol or drugs in an attempt to cope with it.

During the holidays, family gatherings can be a significant source of stress. Some relatives can elicit strong emotions. Some are just plain toxic, ultimately leading to unnecessary fights and arguments. Other family members can cause you to relive unpleasant memories from the events of the past. 

Another source of holiday stress comes from the general hustle and bustle of the season.  Maybe it’s the financial strain that goes along with Christmas shopping for everyone on your list, or maybe it’s organizing a holiday get-together for friends and family. Whatever the reason, it’s not uncommon for your holiday “to-do” list to become overwhelmingly stressful at some point. 

Here’s how to combat this trigger:

  • Evaluate what you’re experiencing and determine the people, places, and things that cause you excessive stress. Then plan ahead to avoid these situations, or at the very least, limit your participation. 
  • Stick to your normal daily routine as much as possible. This means that, no matter how stressful the holiday season becomes, you still make a point to get plenty of rest, practice good eating habits, go to 12-Step meetings, and exercise regularly. Basically, you have to make “me” time a priority. 
  • Talk it out. When life starts to feel too heavy, find an outlet to release that stressful weight off your shoulders. Opening up to those you feel close to – instead of bottling up your emotions – can be therapeutic. Giving your feelings a voice can help to make the stressful situation you’re dealing with feel a lot less consuming. 

Trigger #2 – Holiday Loneliness

This time of year has a way of bringing out feelings of loneliness, especially if you’re not spending the holidays with your loved ones.

It can seem like everyone else is happily soaking up every precious minute with their friends and family, especially on social media and on TV commercials. So, when you’re feeling down and lonely, it’s easy to get bogged down in negative feelings and resort to isolating.

Here’s how to combat this trigger:

  • Keep your support system close. Feelings of loneliness, depression, and isolation can prompt you to pick up a drink or use drugs, so make the extra effort to reach out to your support network during this time. If you’re unable to spend the holidays with loved ones, it’s a good idea to take advantage of virtual platforms, such as Zoom or Skype, to stay connected face-to-face. Or simply pick up the phone and make a call – it’s surprising how much comfort you can feel from simply hearing your loved one’s voice.   
  • Get involved in the community. Giving back those who may be less fortunate is a great way to shift the focus off of yourself and eliminate those negative feelings you may be experiencing. It’s also a guaranteed way to get into the spirit of the season and remind yourself of everything you have to be thankful for. 
  • Rely on tried-and-true, healthy ways to release negative emotions and boost your mood. This might include journaling, meditating, working out, or just going for a walk outside. 

Trigger #3 – Increased Access to Alcohol

From December to January, the holidays filled with Christmas parties, holiday get-togethers, and celebratory New Year’s social gatherings. And that means alcohol is typically available and flowing at these events, which can be pretty tempting to those in recovery. 

Additionally, there’s a good chance the friends and family members around you might be drinking as they’re socializing. This kind of party atmosphere can be triggering enough to send you into a spiral.    

Here’s how to combat this trigger:

  • Go in armed with a plan. If you’ll be attending an event where alcohol is served, it’s crucial to have a game plan. If you go into the situation unprepared, you’re more likely to cave to your temptations. What will you do when you get a whiff of wine? How will you respond if someone asks, “Can I get you a drink?” Having specific, planned-out responses to each of these situations can help keep temptations at bay.   
  • Bring an accountability partner. Avoid going to holiday parties alone if you know you’ll be tempted. Instead, find someone you trust – someone who respects your recovery – and bring them along. Their support can go a long way in avoiding these potentially triggering situations. 
  • Play the tape all the way through. When you’re surrounded by people who are drinking and laughing, you may feel pangs of yearning for the “fun” of your old life. But it’s important to pause for a minute and remember all the destruction your addiction caused in the past. Instead, focus on the new life you’re building and the changes you’re making. Sometimes thinking, rather than reacting, is all we need to do in order to get through a tempting situation. 

Enjoy the Holidays With Your Recovery Intact

Remember, it’s perfectly normal – and expected – to encounter triggers in recovery, but the key is how you respond to them. By being prepared for the unique challenges presented during the holidays, you’ll be better equipped to stay strong and continue moving forward in your recovery. 

Happy holidays!