For many an average American, getting drunk or high, and abnormally so, at Christmas is as traditional as putting a ring of holly on your front door, a Christmas tree that more than touches the living room’s ceiling, and even dragging out Grandma’s old spicy cranberry sauce recipe for the perfect finishing touch to that family turkey feast – invariably, around a table where not everybody is sitting at the same height.
“Get your loved one the help they need. Our substance use disorder program accepts many health insurance plans, this is our residential program.”
“Fran and Rita drove from Harlingen – I can’t remember how I’m kin to them, But when they tried to plug their motor home in, They blew our Christmas lights.”
“Merry Christmas From The Family,” – Robert Earl Keen, Texas country singer/songwriter
Feliz Navidad, indeed. We’ve all been there. At some point. However, times change, family circumstances alter, and, yes, people change – they really do. People move on.
For many people, former drug addicts, and alcoholics, the build-up to the Christmas season is tinged with a certain amount of trepidation – for some, it even invokes a sense of dread and fear. For many, high levels of stress are the norm at just the very idea of it.
Families, the presence of drugs and/or alcohol, high emotions, a lack of unity, and loosened inhibitions are another kind of heady cocktail that those in recovery really should be avoiding – however, we all know, in reality, that isn’t workable, and your attendance could well be the lesser of two evils. In the long run, anyway.
For those in recovery, those who have found sobriety and desperately want to keep that sobriety intact, any holiday season is a test. A stress test, if you like. However, it’s seemingly a greater test at Christmas because of all the childhood memories of times past, previous Christmas times, that you hold – it can invoke powerful memories indeed, with some good and pleasant, and others? Well, not so much. We can all testify to that.
So, as this article’s title envisages, your aim appears a simple one on the surface – maintaining your sobriety during the holiday season. However, we are all too aware that when it comes to emotive and traditional occasions, particularly when they involve “the family,” it’s not the surface you really should be concerned with – it’s what is bubbling beneath that glossy Christmas facade that you need to be prepared for.
As someone in recovery from substance addiction – or, to be medically exact, those suffering from Substance Use Disorder (SUD) or Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) – your preparation for the holiday season needs to begin well in advance, and certainly way, way before the huge Christmas turkey is removed from that old chest freezer in the family home’s garage.
In this guide, you will find practical advice on how to maintain your sobriety during the holiday season.
Understanding Your Addiction
Addiction is defined in your typical A-Z dictionary as “exhibiting a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity.” If you know your Latin, you’ll know that the word “addiction” is actually derived from a Latin term for “enslaved by” or “bound to.”
However, medically-speaking, the definition is often somewhat more informative. The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines it as:
“a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain. It is considered both a complex brain disorder and a mental illness. Addiction is the most severe form of a full spectrum of substance use disorders, and is a medical illness caused by repeated misuse of a substance or substances.”
It’s possible that many reading this have never considered that substance addiction is an actual medically-proven disease, that it’s chronic, and that there is no cure, just recovery, which can bear many forms.
Addiction Causes Significant Changes in the Way Your Brain Functions
When someone becomes addicted to a substance, either drugs or alcohol, their brain, and its normal function become seriously and significantly affected – primarily, in 3 distinct yet completely related ways. These are:
- Powerful physical and psychological cravings for the substance of their addiction
- A loss of normal levels of self-control overuse of the substance, and
- Its continuing use and abuse despite the clear and damaging effects of that usage
Recovery from addiction is possible (that has been proven millions of times). However, the process of recovery is extremely complicated, very long and very slow in its achievement. Back in the 1930s, when the first real investigations into what caused addictive behavior, researchers actually believed that addicts were either morally flawed or simply lacking in willpower. Many followed the theory that addicts should be punished, rather than treated.
Fortunately, we have moved on significantly from that particular train of thought.
Today, the medical community understands that, just as cardiovascular disease damages the heart’s function and diabetes impairs the function of the pancreas, addiction hijacks the brain. Therefore, to achieve something akin to a cure, normally a recovery through abstinence, a multi-faceted, strategic approach is required to the delivery of a workable treatment.
Although the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th. Edition (DSM-V) describes multiple addictions, and how they can be tied to a specific substance or activity, the simple fact remains that these addictions rely on a common, underlying change in the brain’s normal function.
Why Does Addiction Occur & What Then Happens to the Brain?
There is no definitive reason that doctors can identify as to why exactly some people become addicted to a substance. Yes, there are identifiable contributory factors that make it more likely to happen in the first place, but that is where any firm conclusion ends.
One clear factor that increases the chance of any future addiction is genetic vulnerability. For example, objective studies into both twins and adoption have shown that there is a 40-60% increase in the probability of addiction solely attributable to a person’s genetic makeup. Behavior is obviously a factor too, but its contribution to that increase in probability can’t be accurately measured.
The Role of Anxiety & Stress in Relapse
Understanding what dangerous catalysts there are that can trigger an unwanted relapse is easily the best way of ensuring one doesn’t happen. Only by identifying these catalysts, these triggers, can you then put in place the methods and tools needed to deal with them effectively should they arise. And arise they will, usually with no prior warning at all.
By far, the most dangerous of these triggers are centered (and lurking, waiting for an opportunity) solely in the mind – your mind. Unresolved, let alone untreated, mental health conditions and disorders are your numero uno enemy if you wish to stay firmly on the road to recovery.
During the holiday season, we all encounter higher levels of both anxiety and stress. Even though we may have countless memories of such times, some may be good, but some may be bad, especially if they emanate from when we were either too focused on getting drunk or getting high.
Among the most dangerous of these conditions is anxiety, because unresolved anxiety leads to stress that maybe you can’t deal with effectively, and that could instigate a very needful craving to return to the supposed and unreal safety of substance use. However, there are ways and means at your disposal that can help you overcome and conquer such cravings.
What is Anxiety & Anxiety Disorder?
Just like the equally dangerous realms of unresolved depression, anxiety is something we all experience during the holiday season. It’s a normal part of any normal life, and is a natural response to stress. However, it should never be left to fester.
Furthermore, there is another form of anxiety, known as anxiety disorder, where sufferers are unable to overcome these feelings of anxiousness. They are constantly in a state of tension, which has a detrimental effect on virtually everything – their thoughts, moods, and behavior.
According to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), anxiety disorder is a medical term that covers a range of different, yet similar conditions, including:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (feelings of constant or excessive worry)
- Panic disorder (repeated, and often unexpected, episodes of intense fear), and
- Social anxiety disorder (fear that something awful will occur when around others)
Any of these, if left unresolved and untreated, can lead even the most resolute recovering addict dangerously close to an unwanted relapse.
The Link Between Anxiety & Relapse
Anxiety is a very common condition, and anxiety disorder is steadily becoming increasingly common too. In fact, last year, almost 40% of U.S. citizens polled by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), reported being more anxious than the previous year. Furthermore, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that around 40 million U.S. adults – around 18% – have an anxiety disorder.
For those with an anxiety disorder, again according to the ADAA, around 20% of people will have a co-occurring substance use disorder (SUD). either with drugs or alcohol or both. Although the link between the two disorders is clear, it can also be a complex one. This is because the effects of one disorder can make the effects of the other worse; for example, the stress that is caused by a panic disorder can make the sufferer abuse the prescription drugs they take to be calmer. Another way that addicts use to self-medicate themselves.
If you are concerned that your anxiety is becoming too intense, and certainly if you believe you may have an anxiety disorder, you should immediately consult with your family physician. In doing so, you need to be completely honest and frank about your addiction recovery.
What is the “Pleasure Principle”?
Our brains register all pleasure in exactly the same way, whether its cause is a drug, sex, money or food. The chemical reaction in the brain that occurs when we experience pleasure is the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in an area called the nucleus accumbens, or as scientists refer to it, “the brain’s pleasure center,” which is actually a cluster of nerve cells that lie underneath the cerebral cortex.
When a person uses a substance for the purposes of pleasure, whether it’s for getting high or getting drunk, that substance provides an instant shortcut to the brain’s pleasure center, and the nucleus accumbens is literally flooded with dopamine. The brain then reacts in terms of both producing a memory of that pleasure and creating a conditioned response to the substance in question.
The likelihood that the use of a substance will lead to addiction is directly linked to the speed with which it produces that all-important dopamine release, as well as the intensity and the reliability of the release.
Finally, because dopamine has been found to also have a bearing upon establishing memory and conditioned responses, the brain will inevitably build up a certain tolerance to the substance that triggers this response of pleasure. Therefore, more of that substance will be needed to achieve the same initial response. In other words… addiction.
Common Addiction Triggers
The holidays are infamous for an increase in substance abuse for a variety of reasons. The most common of these reasons are:
- Pressure to be around family: Many times, family can be our harshest critics bringing up flaws or creating unrealistic expectations. The holidays bring these thoughts and feelings to the forefront causing addicts to feel even more shame and guilt.
- Social situations that differ from normal routine: A change from a normal routine can leave an uneasy feeling regardless of how minor the change. The holidays bring several changes to our normal routine from late work parties to scrambling for gifts. These changes in our normal routine can easily trigger a recovering addict.
- Spending large amounts of money: Based on the unrealistic expectations and/or pressure placed upon us most people overspend during the holiday season. Between having to purchase gifts, food, and travel expenses many people stress over the amounts of money being spent and how to recoup that money.
Effective Ways to Cope with Anxiety During the Holiday Season
With the holiday season firmly upon us, you don’t have to be a statistical mathematician to acknowledge that, during the month of December, more people will drink-drive, more people will binge drink, more people will smoke weed, more people will “do” drugs for the first time, and active addicts will just carry on as normal (that’s their “normal,” by the way).
For those in recovery, however, with the likely heightened sense of anxiety, your previous “coping mechanism,” for want of a better phrase, simply isn’t an option. Do not fear. There are effective ways you can use to cope with this heightened anxiety – all the while protecting the best “gift” you’ve had all year – yes, your sobriety. Here are our best ways to deal effectively with all that the holiday season is going to throw at you:
- Being Good to No. 1 – Yourself
Remember the phrase “Always look out for No. 1.” Never more important than come hoñiday season. If you are involved with a recovery program, continue going to meetings and group support sessions. Go to more if you can. By connecting with others within a recovery program, you should never feel isolated.
- Being Good to Others
However, you should avoid becoming too self-absorbed too. Join a voluntary organization, and help others this holiday season – great for your self-esteem.
- Looking After Your Health
Eat properly, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly. Keep your body well-balanced as well as your mind.
- Staying in Safe Environments
Always avoid risky situations and risky environments – they are no good to you or for you. Always have an exit strategy, wherever you are.
- Remaining Positive
Think about things you enjoy doing, your hobbies and favorite activities, where the environment is a safe one. Enjoy yourself – responsibly.
- Bringing Your Own Drinks
If you need to go somewhere that will be serving alcohol, take your own drinks – that’s the non-alcoholic kind. It is certainly not shameful or disrespectful to be drinking fruit juice or sodas. In fact, take more than you need, and share it around.
- Going with a Friend
A personal favorite. Take a friend you trust, who can offer support if you need it.
- Having a Pre-Planned Response
It’s likely you’ll get asked why you’re not drinking. If you wish to answer, have a pre-planned response. Simply saying “I’m driving tonight,” or “I need to get up early tomorrow morning” will suffice for those who are not aware of your recovery. If people persist, and they might, politely refuse their offer once again and move on.
- Keeping Triggers in Mind
Regardless of what stage you are in your recovery, you need to be aware of what your personal triggers are. Sharing this with your abstinent friend and guest will help you to cope.
- Considering Yourself First
Always, always consider yourself first. Do you really need to go to the holiday office party? Do you have to go to that family get-together? Nothing, absolutely nothing is worth risking your sobriety and continued recovery.
“We accept many health insurance plans. Get your life back in order, take a look at our residential program.”
Breaking the Cycle
This holiday season, the main message Northpoint Recovery wants to share is how to assist those who are still fighting their addiction battle. Watch your loved ones and check the signs and symptoms of addiction: isolation, physically look impaired and difficulty maintaining a conversation. If you suspect someone you care for is suffering from substance abuse disorder the best way you can assist them is to let them know you are available, you love them and there is hope. Many times letting the addict know you are there to support them and not criticize may be enough for them.
Additionally, with the traditional family together, make sure to plan events so everyone is staying busy. Take a walk to view the lights, go caroling, or check out local events. This can help prevent uncomfortable discussions about the addiction. Lastly, cherish the times together and be kind to one another. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, eat well, exercise, and maintain hope to make it through the holidays with sobriety intact.