In the winter holidays of November, December, and January, people experience their highest rates of anxiety all year. In fact, 84% of Americans report feeling moderately to overwhelmingly stressed during the holidays. The holidays also have the highest rates of drug and alcohol related fatalities. Almost 91,000 Americans have died substance-related deaths in the month of December since 1999. Stress can play a major role in addiction relapse, and the holidays present a plethora of triggering situations that could make you vulnerable. Read further to learn more about the relationship between addiction and stress, and what you should do to stop a relapse.
Why is relapse so common during the holiday season?
Learning how to deal with stress is a crucial part of anyone’s addiction recovery. One way that stress hormones push you towards drug-seeking behavior is by amplifying dopamine activity in the reward center of your brain. The neurochemical surge that drives you to seek out substances is higher during times of stress because it is being added on top of an already present elevation.
Not only can in-the-moment hormonal reactions make you more vulnerable to relapse, chronic stress can actually alter your cells in ways that influence motivation and behavior. Furthermore, stress impacts executive functioning, the set of cognitive processes that allow you to learn, self-monitor, and control your impulses. Considering the way that addiction alters the reward pathways in the brain, adding holiday stress to the brain of a person in recovery is going to put you at a much greater risk of relapse.
But relapse is not inevitable. You can learn how to stop a relapse by learning how to recognize and deal with holiday stressors, how to identify the signs of an oncoming relapse, and what to do for alcohol and drug addiction relapse prevention.
How to Stop a Relapse by Avoiding These Holiday Stressors
1. A Party Atmosphere
The holidays can create a surprising partying atmosphere in all areas of life. Champagne could show up at a casual get together with friends, or spiked eggnog could appear during a meeting at the office. Research has shown that 20% of relapse episodes are caused by being around people who are drinking or doing drugs. Avoid these situations when you can, and when they take you buy surprise, don’t be shy about directly stating that you prefer to abstain. If you’d rather maintain your privacy, or if simply being around substance use causes you to feel internal pressure to relapse, remove yourself from the situation. If you can’t completely leave, excuse yourself for long enough to call your sponsor or a sober friend. Prepare in advance for these kinds of situations by attending meetings during the holidays, finding out where and when meetings will be held if you’ll be traveling, and/or arranging to be the emergency support hotline for a friend or acquaintance in recovery who can do the same for you.
2. Playing host
Even people who love to host big gatherings during the holidays will still stress over cleaning and decorating the house, planning a meal, cooking, making sure there is enough silverware, making sure there is enough seating for the big game, and so on. But there are ways to minimize the stress. First, prepare as much as you can ahead of time. You could also have a potluck. Tell your guests that you’ll make the turkey and gravy if they’ll bring the side dishes and desserts. You could even consider having the event catered, buying a pre-cooked turkey or ham, or getting a family-sized frozen lasagna from the grocery store. And whenever someone asks if there is anything they can do to help, actually give them a task!
3. Overspending or stressing over money
Among the many nobler themes of the holiday season is a rampant materialism that pressures you to spend money you don’t have on presents and lavish celebrations. Resist this pressure by focusing on the spiritual aspects of the season. You don’t have to be religious to connect with something larger than yourself. Make a gratitude list or start a gratitude journal to help you recognize all the wonderful things that cannot be bought or sold. Having your sobriety is one of the biggest things to be thankful for. There are also many ways to give gifts without spending much, or anything at all. Offer to help friends or family members with chores or tasks. Get creative—your best friend might like a cashmere sweater, but they would love if you promised to help them do their taxes in a couple of months.
While not everyone can, or even wants to, avoid their family during the holiday season, you can avoid being overwhelmed by family stress. The first step is to set boundaries. Be loving but firm with them, as well as with yourself, when it comes to what you are and are not okay with. You don’t have to sacrifice your own wellbeing to accommodate inappropriate or upsetting behavior. Even positive interactions with family can be a potential trigger—perhaps you have a favorite sibling or cousin who you used to drink or use drugs with. You’ll have to be clear that you love spending time with them, but you need that time to be substance-free.
Bringing the whole family together during a season that is high-stress for everyone can lead to hostile interactions. Try to remember that you can’t control what other people do and say; you can only control yourself. Wasting time trying to convince someone they’re wrong will only drain your energy and raise your blood pressure. Try to de-escalate the hostility in the room by acknowledging the other person’s feelings while simultaneously trying to get them to move on. For example, say, “I may not agree with you, but I understand why you feel that way. Can we just agree to disagree and enjoy the holiday?”
When all else fails, give yourself permission to leave. You do not have to remain in a situation that is a threat to your mental and physical health. Offer an excuse, say a polite goodbye, and go. If you’re staying in the same home with family, go for a drive, take a walk, or just leave the room.
Some people don’t have family to spend time with during the holidays. Maybe you’re estranged from your relatives, or have a family situation that is too toxic to take part in. Don’t let loneliness overwhelm you this year by taking action. Spend time with friends, volunteer, attend meetings, host your own holiday celebration, find a recovery event, or come up with a goal or project to distract you. Reorganizing your closets, building a birdhouse, or learning to speak Farsi might not be traditional holiday activities, but they can keep you busy, and give you a sense of satisfaction that will boost your mood.
Signs of an Oncoming Relapse
An important part of alcohol and drug addiction relapse prevention is learning how to identify the signs that a relapse could be headed your way.
The first stage of relapse is emotional. Long before you start thinking about drinking or using drugs, your emotional state and behavior could make you vulnerable to doing so. You could be in the emotional stage of relapse if you are:
- Experiencing anxiety, anger, or mood swings
- Losing or gaining weight
- Sleeping poorly, not eating well, not exercising
- Avoiding meetings, skipping therapy sessions
- Generally feeling run down
Some of this could be related to PAWS, Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, which can persist for months or years after you give up drugs or drinking. The symptoms do improve over time, but not at a steady rate, and they can come and go. Use all the recovery resources you have to cope with this, and comfort yourself by focusing the big picture. You might be doing worse today than you were yesterday, but you are probably doing better this month than last month, and even better this year than last year.
You also need to consistently practice good self care and regularly use positive stress relief techniques to prevent slipping into a state of emotional relapse. Be kind to yourself. Use gratitude to shift away from negative self-talk. Vent stress through exercise. Give yourself things to enjoy. At this time of year, it’s good take advantage of holiday-specific pleasures, like taking a holiday tour of homes, watching your favorite Christmas movie on TV, or baking your favorite seasonal treat. If you don’t like the holidays, give yourself permission to avoid typical holiday activities in favor of going to the aquarium, listening to non-Christmas music, or watching a marathon of beach movies.
After emotional relapse comes mental relapse, when you are actively thinking about drinking or using. It may begin as an idle thought, remembering the good feelings that a substance gave you, or reminiscing about the role drugs and alcohol used to play in your past holiday celebrations. In time, these idle thoughts can become an actual deliberation, with you being torn between wanting to use, and wanting to stay sober.
At this point, you need to get serious about turning things around. Try some of the following coping techniques:
- Start by giving yourself a reality check. If you find yourself glamorizing past substance misuse, remind yourself of the indignities of using—of passing out and vomiting and doing things you don’t remember the next day.
- Bring up your thoughts about using with a counselor. It can also be good to confide in a friend or family member, too, but choose the person carefully. Some of your loved ones might not be equipped to deal with the thought of you using again, and their reaction may hurt more than help.
- Go to a meeting and learn from the relapse experiences of others. Speak up about your own temptations to use; sometimes just airing out an idea can be enough to diminish its power. Between other people’s stories and your own memories, you should be able to envision how easily a few drinks could turn into a destructive downward spiral.
- When you are overcome by drug or alcohol cravings, force yourself to wait thirty minutes before making a move towards using. Do whatever you can to distract yourself during that time—even sit and watch the seconds tick by on your phone’s stopwatch if you have to. You’ll be surprised at how different you feel just half an hour later. If the compulsion to use is still there, think about the fact that you made it thirty minutes so far—why not go another thirty minutes? Sooner or later, the urge will pass. Taking it one day at a time, or even one minute at a time, will keep sobriety manageable.
How to Stop a Relapse
The last phase of relapse is physical, when you actually act on your urge to use. Maybe you’ll never reach this phase, but if you do, don’t allow it to derail your recovery forever. Be open about what happened; don’t bury it in shame—this will only increase the chances that you’ll keep drinking or using and slip into old patterns of behavior. Seek out support and professional treatment. Relapse is not a sign of failure; it is just a sign that your treatment approach should be adjusted, that you left treatment too soon, or that you need to take action, do some self-examination work, and make changes to refocus your recovery.
Find Addiction Support During the Holidays
Whether you want to return to an inpatient or outpatient treatment program, or simply need a little extra help to get you through the holiday season, please contact one of our trained, professional addiction counselors at 800-654-0987 to find the right treatment program for your addiction. You can also explore rehab centers in your area by visiting our directory.