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Beating Holiday Stress: How to Manage it While in Recovery

John Templeton Jr. - December 18, 2019

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The holidays can be a season of highs and lows for anyone, but if you are recently sober – or even several years into recovery – it can be difficult to stay clean during this time.

Seeing old friends and family members can bring back emotions tied to past holidays. These memories aren’t always pleasant and may make you want to turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with the anxiety, depression or stress they bring.

In some cases, we can look back on those times fondly and laugh them off. But for people like you who are trying to keep your recovery on track, holiday stress can have you grabbing for a glass of wine or a bottle of pills.

The Link Between the Holidays and Mental Health Disorders

Holidays can seriously affect those who already struggle with feelings of anxiety and depression. While it’s a time of joy and happiness for some, for others it can trigger negative emotional responses.

In fact, The American Psychological Association found that 38 percent of people report that their stress levels increase during the holidays.

But why is this? Sometimes simply entering a crowded room or carrying on conversations can produce intense anxiety. Other triggers of stress or anxiety disorders during the holidays include:

  • Talking to co-workers at a large office party
  • Exchanging gifts
  • Large gatherings of people
  • Long drives or flights
  • Travel complications
  • Busy schedules

The Connection Between Addiction and Anxiety Disorder

In order to cope with an anxiety disorder, a person may start to self-treat with drugs and alcohol. They will experience temporary relief and even a sense of euphoria.

Unfortunately, this feeling doesn’t last, so they will try to recapture it over and over again. This can worsen the psychological and physical symptoms of anxiety and reinforce the need to use even more. The cycle eventually leads to dependence and addiction.

5 Examples of Common Anxiety Disorders

1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder: A continuous sense of dread with no specific focus
2. Social Anxiety Disorder: An unreasonable fear of interacting with others
3. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: This develops after a traumatic event
4. Panic Disorder: Episodes of overwhelming and uncontrollable terror
5. Specific Phobias: An irrational fear of an object, situation or animal

The key to getting through the holidays with your sobriety intact is to avoid the urge to self-medicate when trying to overcome these feelings of holiday anxiety.

Learning to Recognize the Physical Signs of Anxiety

Anxiety can even take a toll directly on the body. Those suffering from an anxiety disorder can have a physical response to situations or objects that seem threatening to them. These life-threatening responses can include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Trembling
  • Insomnia
  • Stomach pain
  • Choking sensations
  • Sweating
  • Rapid Heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness

11 Tips for Dealing with Anxiety & the “Holiday Blues” While in Recovery

Make a strategy and be ready for any situation that comes up during the holidays so you can survive these few weeks without turning to drugs or alcohol.

1. Practice self-care

Take time to relax and meditate every day. Lower your standards and reduce your demands when possible to help avoid depression.

2. Say no when needed

If you worry that certain activities might trigger anxiety, just say no. You’re not obligated to attend every function, especially if it could be dangerous to your recovery.

3. Make new traditions

Host a small gathering of people who make you feel comfortable. Or attend a celebration with a Twelve Step group.

4. Ask a sober friend to be on call

Find someone to turn to in case you feel the need to drink during holiday festivities. This person can be a sponsor, friend or family member.

5. Bring a non-drinking buddy

It can be easier to avoid alcohol at a party if you aren’t the only one staying sober. Reward yourselves in the morning with a nice brunch or walk in the park.

6. Bring your own drinks

Pack some sodas or seltzers for any holidays parties you attend. This way you always have something in your hand and you are less likely to be offered a drink.

7. Stay active

You may be more likely to drink alcohol or use drugs if you are sitting still. Make cookies or look at decorations to keep busy. Also find time to exercise or take a walk to help ward off depression.

8. Decide on a response

Not everyone at a holiday party will know you’re in recovery so have an easy reply ready when someone offers you a drink. It could be simply that you’re driving or have an early commitment in the morning. Choose a response that eases your anxiety.

9. Don’t overindulge

Try to keep a balanced diet and get enough sleep to avoid depression and anxiety. Good sleep habits help prevent relapses all year round.

10. Have an exit strategy

Be ready with an excuse to leave if you aren’t feeling comfortable or start craving a drink. You can say ahead of time that you have another party to attend so you don’t feel obligated to stay long. Or even have a friend call you at a certain time and see if you need a reason to leave.1

11. Attend spiritual services

These can help you avoid depression and remind you of the spirit of the season.

Dealing With Holiday Stress for People in Recovery

Think back to Christmas and New Year’s before you struggled with addiction. Do you have memories of arguing with your parents about what you were wearing for the family party? Or maybe you recall the stress of getting the house cleaned and decorated before hosting dozens of people for Christmas Eve.

If you’re in recovery, be on the lookout for some of the most common holiday stressors, including:

  • Getting holiday decorations up and ensuring Christmas lights are working
  • Running late for holiday festivities, like Christmas mass or a family party
  • Buying the perfect gifts for family and friends without breaking the bank
  • The pressure to be happy during the holiday season
  • Personal insecurities or comparing yourself to friends and family
  • Feeling like you need to impress family members and friends you haven’t seen in a while
  • Challenging or stressful relationships with people that make you feel bad about yourself

Holiday stress is a given. What’s not is being aware of your individual triggers. The bullet points above are by no means a complete list of holiday stressors, so take some time before Christmas to think about and write down all your personal reasons why the holidays stress you out.

7 Ways to Manage Holiday Stress and Prevent Relapse

Once you’re fully aware of what stresses you out during the holidays, you can do something about it. Here are 7 key ways to help you manage your holiday stress and keep your addiction recovery on track:

1. Have an Exit Strategy If and When Your Triggers Occur. Fortune favors the prepared. If you’re aware of your holiday stressors, take some time to plan how you’ll handle them. Do large groups make you anxious? Have a couple quiet spaces ready to go if you need to duck out of the room. Does witnessing your family’s stress-fighting over dinner preparations and house cleaning push you to your limit? Talk to your family about how their reactions affect you. Maybe even come up with a safe word to use if conflict does arise to let them know you’re getting overwhelmed and need to walk away.

2. Use Your Support Network as Back Up. Your support network plays a significant role in your recovery. Before the holidays, talk to them about your triggers and why the holidays stress you out. Ask them to help you avoid your stressors and give them ways to step in and support you. Having at least one person watching your back during the holidays can keep you from giving into cravings.

3. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. Is it just in your mom’s nature to make comments about your hair or what you’re wearing for the holidays? Are you running a little late to your family’s Christmas dinner? While stressful in the moment, these little things don’t deserve your time and energy and certainly aren’t worth relapsing over. Do your best to shrug off little holiday annoyances and focus on the bigger picture of your recovery.

4. Take Breaks to Meditate. The holidays can be overwhelming and trigger feelings of anxiety and depression. If you start to feel exhausted or stressed out, take a time out from the festivities. Follow your exit strategy and take 10-15 minutes to just sit by yourself and meditate. Meditation can help you settle your breathing and refocus your thoughts and feelings before you decide to relapse.

5. Do What Makes You Happy. There will always be things we don’t want to do. Maybe being dragged to holiday parties is just something you have to do to keep your family and friends happy. But, don’t forget to also do what makes you happy. Does exercise make you feel good? Get a run or lifting session in before a party. Do you love painting, playing music or reading? Take time to do those things! Doing what you love can help you relax and enjoy the holidays.

6. Stay Off Social Media. Social media may help you stay connected with others, but it can also bring up personal insecurities and have you comparing yourself to others based on what family members and friends post. If you’ve struggled with self-esteem and know that you compare your life to others, avoid spending time on social media. Remember, social media only gives you a window into the parts of someone’s life they want you to see. Don’t let yourself get caught up in thinking everyone’s life is better or more exciting than yours.

7. Avoid Toxic Relationships. Are there members of your family you just don’t get along with for one reason or another? Maybe an uncle always makes inappropriate comments or a cousin always puts you down when you see them. It’s okay to avoid these types of people for the sake of your recovery. If you have to be at the same party as them, be polite and greet them, but do your best to surround yourself for the rest of the evening with people who make you feel good.

Help is Always Available for Addiction – Even During the Holidays

Have holiday stressors challenged your recovery or have you already relapsed? First, don’t feel ashamed or think you failed. Relapse is just another part of recovery and it means you simply need some extra help in coping with your triggers. Second, Footprints Beachside Recovery can help you get your recovery back on track.

If you’re ready, talk to one of our team members today to learn more about our treatment program and how we can help you.

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