You might be breathing a sigh of relief that Thanksgiving is over. One holiday down, just a few more to go. While this might sound like a bah humbug statement to some readers, for those who are either trying to cut down or cut out alcohol (and substances), the holiday season isn’t quite so merry. Regardless of whether or not we feel we overindulge, we can all probably relate to feeling some of the stressors of the holiday season and perhaps not always choosing the healthiest coping mechanisms.
Once December hits, it seems like the mercury drops, the stressors rise and the glasses fill. We’re juggling work obligations, kid’s recitals and school performances, present shopping, toy assembly and holiday parties. Then there’s the financial squeeze of trying to give our families everything their hearts desire without going into credit card debt to do it.
We try to jam in as much holiday cheer into a 3-week period all while sprinkling in extended family visits, travel, houseguests and crazy work hours. Then we race to button everything up before winter break begins and the year ends. We kid ourselves into thinking that with each drink we’re celebrating, but, oftentimes, we are medicating. And while maybe that worked to relieve some of our tension in the past, there comes a point when the amount we consume causes us more harm than it helps us to mitigate stress.
If you’ve been wanting to either be completely abstinent, cutback or just feel like you’re in a bit more control of your drinking this holiday season, then here are a few tips to help.
Check-in with yourself.
Are you having hangovers where you’re not only feeling bad about what you consumed, but also feeling regret about how you acted? Is this a historical problem or something more recent? One good gut check is to see if you’re more excited to spend the holidays with Jim, Jack, Johnny, Bud and Jose than with your friends and loved ones. If that’s the case, it’s probably time to reassess your habits.
Have a plan
Don’t white knuckle your way through a white Christmas. The more forethought you can put into this, the better. Picture the old cliched (yet accurate) words of a coach. If you fail to plan, then plan to fail. Your success does depend on you being honest, realistic and reasonable with yourself on this topic. And then following through. The good thing about the holidays is that they are somewhat predictable. You tend to go to the same events, the same celebrations and hang out with the same people year after year. So if you know where your more predictable triggers are, you can plan ahead on how to better cope with them and not be caught off guard.
Recharge your battery
We have a lot less willpower at the end of the day, then we do at the beginning of the day. Most holiday events that can be problematic are in the evenings. So be sure to adequately charge your battery BEFORE you walk out the door. Get enough sleep, exercise and eat healthy, as well as give yourself some time to decompress in between your workday and a holiday evening celebration.
Identify your support spokes
I like to have clients think about our daily life like the wheel of a bicycle. Picture yourself in the hub with your various support systems being the spokes. Each spoke should be a support beam that keeps you on a healthy path. Support spokes might be friends who are either sober or who don’t have issues with substances. They might be the activities that soothe you when you’re stressed such as music, fresh air or exercise. They can be 12-step meetings or time with a therapist. If you are trying to do this without support, recognize that it will be much harder to gain any traction than with some support spokes..
Keep yourself busy
It’s in those idle moments when our hands are habitually itching for another cocktail. So keep yourself busy. I like to cook, so being in charge of the holiday meal is actually a relief. I’m in my comfort zone at events when I’m helping in the kitchen. Don’t like to cook? Pick up a camera and take photos of the revelry. You are still an active part of the event, but not just hovering by the bar. Or get out your old guitar and pluck out a carol. Throw a football for the younger set outside, organize a sledding excursion, start a snowball brigade or just crack open a board game. Basically, keep yourself engaged in something enjoyable other than your next refill.
Ground yourself in the moment
We spend a lot of our time regretting the past and catastrophizing the future which leads us to want to over medicate. When you feel that anxiety start to creep in, ground yourself in the moment. Feel your feet on the floor, take some deep diaphragmatic breaths to calm your nervous system, orient yourself to your surroundings and acknowledge that you are ok in this present moment.
Have an urge plan
Create a when/then plan. When I feel an urge, then I’ll call a friend, excuse myself to take some deep belly breaths in the bathroom or go for a quick walk outside. The urge will pass without you needing to indulge it, but it is easier to manage urges when you have a when/then plan in place ahead of time. When I feel an urge, then I’ll call my supportive friend, ask my partner for support or just excuse myself to go to the bathroom and just breathe.
I bring my own sparkling water with me everywhere. I’ve also started bringing artisan mocktail mixers to holiday parties as hostess gifts. If you’re hosting a holiday party, consider having a thoughtful array of nonalcoholic drinks for those who aren’t drinking or who don’t want to overindulge.
While you might be tempted to just hole up at home until the New Year, it’s not wise. Being in community is one way we are able to self-regulate and loneliness can be just as detrimental to our sobriety as parking ourselves in the middle of a liquor store. With that said, feel free to skip the usual traditions that might be slippery slopes and, instead, start some new traditions with people you enjoy being around.
Orchestrate your exit
Discuss with your partner or friends ahead of time how long you want to stay at a holiday event. Be communicative about your needs ahead of time so that there aren’t any surprises. Be realistic about how long you think it’s best for you to participate in the party and then follow-through and be vigilant about your own self-care.
Focus on the original intention of the holidays
Despite what we might think when we’re having a rough go, the holidays aren’t meant to be one big tinsel covered torture device. They’re intended to be an opportunity for us to show the people we love how much we care about them. Connect with that original intention and let go of some of the annoyances that can make the season less merry and bright. Don’t just harp on what’s frustrating you, savor some of the good happening right in front of you.<
Let your gift be your presence
No matter how many shiny boxes we all think we need to have under the tree. The true gift of the holiday season is our presence. Alcohol and substances are the ways that we check-out of current situations. They keep us from being present, which is what the people we care about want most from us.
Remember that this is about progress, not perfection…
These are simple suggestions, but, in the thick of it, they are by no means easy. Addiction and alcoholism are much more complicated issues than could ever be covered in one blog post. They merit a thoughtful approach and thorough treatment. Keep in mind that unresolved factors and obstacles can hinder sobriety and keep the maladaptive cycle going. The holiday season is often the wake-up call for a lot of people who would like the additional support of licensed counselors so that they can finally be successful. So take a look at the big picture and seek professional support when needed.
Because, at the end of the day, when managing alcoholism and addiction, the biggest wins come from being SMARTER not STRONGER.
-Matt Larock, LCSW, LAC
Matt has a master’s degree in social work and is a certified addiction counselor II. Matt is also studying to become a Somatic Experience Practitioner, and has completed nature based counseling trainings. Sturggling and want some help this holiday season? Schedule with Matt here: