Why is the Risk of Relapse Higher During the Holidays?
Living in recovery is a day by day process. It can seem particularly daunting especially if you’re in the early stages of sobriety. During the holidays, the risks of relapse are generally higher because of a variety of factors. Triggers, stress, and simply more exposure to substance-use environments are just a few of the risks. Even if you’ve been in recovery for a long time, you may still find yourself struggling to avoid relapsing over the holidays.
Between feeling pulled in different directions, having extra demands on our time, and finding ourselves in uncomfortable situations, things can get tricky during the holiday season. Moreover, research shows that emotional triggers and stress can play a large role in alcohol relapse. These stressors can pose a real risk of relapse, but things don’t have to end badly. It’s more than possible to enjoy the holidays and not fall into old habits. By being aware of your triggers and leaning on sobriety strategies, you can make it through the holiday stress in one piece.
Three Holiday Triggers that Could Lead to Relapse
During the holidays, you’re more likely to attend office Christmas parties, neighborhood events, and festive gatherings hosted by friends and family members. All this socializing can be draining, exhausting , and even stressful for many people. Moreover, many of these social activities likely involve alcohol. So although many people tend to drink more during the holidays because they’re at more social events, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. There are several other factors to consider.
The three factors discussed below may influence alcohol and/or drug use. Moreover, they could increase the likelihood that someone in recovery may relapse.
Increase in Travel Stress:
Traveling more during the holidays doesn’t have to be stressful, but it often is. Whether you’re going on vacation or visiting family members who live elsewhere, you’re bound to encounter a few bumps along the way. While traveling can be a great way to relax, holiday travel isn’t necessarily known for its leisure.
Things are also just more busy during the holidays. Airports and train stations are often packed with people, tickets are more expensive, and it can be a hassle to simply get where you need to go. If you have more than one destination on your travels, these disruptions to your daily routine can make it difficult. Since routine is central to many people’s life in recovery, longer travel times can make you miss recovery meetings and meetings with sponsors.
Stressors of Family Dynamics:
For many people, the holidays are an ideal time to spend with close family and friends. But for some people in recovery, toxic family members and those who are unsupportive can be a significant source of anxiety and stress. Furthermore, a person’s gender may also play a role in their relapse risk. In one study, for example, researchers showed the effects that marriage had on a person’s risk of relapse. For men, being married was found to lower their risk of relapse, whereas marriage and marital stress increased a woman’s risk of relapsing.
In short, complex family issues can make get togethers less enjoyable. If this is the case for you, family events may be especially risky and require a lot more attention.
Unrealistic Pressure and Expectations:
In addition to circumstantial stressors, there’s also the internal stress we can place on ourselves during the holidays. It’s easy to feel like you have to have everything perfect for the holidays. Feeling pressure from family members or friends to host the perfect dinner party is one of these unrealistic expectations. You don’t need to give the best gifts, or to attend every event you’re invited to. As long as you’re authentic and sincere in what you’re doing, resist the urge to fall prey to unnecessary pressures.
Tips for Dealing With Relapse Risks
#1 Have a Plan at Christmas Parties:
First, be clear about whether or not you want to go to a party in the first place. Second, prepare yourself to decline drinks with an explanation. Third, set your time clock and stick to it. If you need to only commit to staying for the meal, then leave when you know it’s time. If there’s no meal, commit to staying for an hour or so, and tell your co-workers or friends that you have another commitment to attend. Finally, prearrange a check-in with a friend in recovery that you can call if you’re ever uncomfortable.
#2 Set and Keep Boundaries with Family:
In tough family situations, remind yourself that you have the power to walk away or ask for time out at any time. If you feel threatened or stuck in a conflict, take a phone call or sneak away to the restroom to find your center. If there are certain topics that trigger you with family, like politics or money or family history, actively avoid them. When you know what your triggers are, you can start to practice enforcing boundaries. At the beginning it can feel a little awkward, but your boundaries will become more comfortable to uphold over time.
#3 Giving Gifts that Make Sense for You:
Many people have debt in the early stages of their recovery journey. If this is you or you have a tenuous relationship with money, gift giving during the holidays can be particularly stressful. But there’s no need to take on this extra relapse risk. Instead, you can either opt out of the gift exchanges or get creative with gift ideas. Quality time coupons, date nights, and homemade gifts are all great ways to show you care without going into more debt or causing yourself unnecessary stress.
By implementing these strategies, or coming up with your own, you can be confident in enjoying the holidays without running into relapse risks. We can never fully eliminate stress from our lives, but we can actively work to empower ourselves and develop healthy coping skills. If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse this holiday season, reach out to a team member at Impact Recovery today and start rebuilding your life.