If you’ve walked into any major retailers lately there’s no denying that the holidays are upon us. True, the turkey hasn’t yet been served on Thanksgiving, but the marketing, holiday music and many social engagements are already all around.
When you were a kid the holidays may have been the most wonderful time of year, filled with gift-giving, family visits and parties. When you’re an adult, however, all of that can seem overwhelming, particularly if you’re trying to go about it sober.
“We hear so often in recovery circles that the holidays are really challenging and difficult,” said Nell Hurley, the executive director of alumni and recovery support at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. “Everything is heightened around the holidays: pressure, expectation, stress and even joy.”
All of that holiday spirit can be overwhelming, so it’s key to have a plan for dealing with holiday stress and coping in a healthy way, rather than turning to drugs or alcohol.
“At least for me as an addict, I always dealt with any emotion — stress, anxiety, sometimes even joy — by trying to dampen it with the use of alcohol,” said Hurley, who has been in recovery for nearly 20 years.
Here are some tips for staying focused on sobriety this holiday season:
1. Give Yourself The Gift Of Recovery
This holiday season put yourself on the top of your gift-giving list. The most valuable thing that you can give yourself is a continued investment in your recovery. Whether you are newly in recovery or have decades of sobriety under your belt, build in extra support during this busy time of year. Don’t let holiday demands derail you from going to meetings, since you probably need them more than ever this time of year. When you’re not in the rooms, take time for other self-care that keeps you connected to your recovery.
For Hurley, one gift that sobriety brings is the ability to take control of her life.
“That is the thing that I am most grateful for, the ability to make choices,” she said. “In active addiction my brain was always getting hijacked and I didn’t have the ability to make healthy choices. In recovery, we have the freedom and ability to make choices that we never had in active use.”
2. Be Firm With Your Family
Much of the stress around the holidays comes from interactions with family, particularly if you come from a family that is dealing with cycles of addiction.
“So many of us struggle with family and those relationships,” Hurley said.
“Whether we’re in recovery or not, we tend to adopt our parents’ traditions around Christmas, but being in recovery is about being able to finally make choices,” she said.
That includes deciding what you want your holidays to be like and setting firm boundaries when necessary.
“Do that reflection to decide what do you want on Christmas. What does New Years look like to you?” Hurley says. “Do what nurtures you and fills your cup, rather than defaulting to other people’s expectations.”
3. Slow Down
The holiday season can rush by in a blur, leaving us emotionally drained, exhausted and broke come January. Don’t let the holiday madness sweep you away this year. Instead, find quiet time to reflect on what sobriety has meant for you and for your relationships with the people you love.
“For me the whole key to learning how to do things differently has been around slowing down,” Hurley said. “Before getting into recovery, I’ve been on autopilot my whole life, reacting to situations, stress, anxiety and fear with alcohol. Being able to learn how to be present and feel it all, let it all in, and do it sober has been really hard, but also the thing that has allowed me to open up to my experiences.”
During the holiday season that might mean being aware of your discomfort around certain traditions or people.
“Recognize how you feel rather than powering through it,” Hurley said. “Recognize your reaction and your emotions like anxiety or whatever it is that’s going on.”
Then, rather than reverting to old coping mechanisms, decide on a healthier way forward.
“We need to give ourselves permission to do things differently,” Hurley said.