5 Tips for Managing Holiday Stress

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By Dr. David Fawcett

While the holiday season can be stressful for everyone, addicts and those who love them often experience heightened pressure which strains their coping skills and increases discomfort. Triggers for various addictive behaviors abound, such as office parties or other gatherings where alcohol is a prominent feature. Opportunities for overspending, overdrinking, and overeating seem to be everywhere. Worries about money and time increase and unpleasant feelings such as loneliness, hurt, and anger can erupt from strained social relationships. A family gathering may prove to be so uncomfortably intense that a sex addict sneaks away to act out, while friends and families of addicts worry about their loved one’s behavior and the consequences for all concerned.

These are just a few of the seasonal factors that can make this time of year especially difficult for those affected by addiction. The good news is there are some simple things we can do to maintain both our enjoyment of the season and our solid recovery. Here are a few:

  1. Stay Balanced. Balance in all areas of one’s life is essential for a smooth recovery. It is important to avoid overindulgence in food, drink, drugs, and spending despite the heightened pressure to indulge. Find time each day for self-care, such as taking some quiet moments by yourself, engaging in a creative project, or just having fun. Be mindful of getting an adequate amount of sleep and be careful to moderate your exposure to things that you know can throw you off balance, like being out in crowds, having too much social contact, or uncomfortable family gatherings.
  1. Remain Socially Connected. The holidays, with their commercialized and often-unrealistic ideals of warm and happy family gatherings, frequently impact addicts and those who love them by emphasizing what they have lost or perhaps never had. The result can be feelings of intense loneliness along with abandonment and alienation. The act of avoiding such emotions may have been the spark that ignited addictive behavior in the first place, so it is important to stay as socially involved as possible. Plan an activity with another person every day. Reach out to others, remembering that they may also be experiencing loneliness and disconnection. Get to a meeting. Most cities have twelve step meetings which hold 24-hour marathons on Christmas and New Year’s. Finally, remember that in recovery programs we can create our “family of choice” so that we don’t ever have to be alone.
  1. Manage Your Expectations. Just as with relapse planning, it can be especially useful to think about high-risk situations you may face and then create specific plans to address them.  For example, people often avoid making specific plans and suddenly find themselves confronted with being alone on Christmas or New Year’s. Strong emotional feelings and unplanned time are a troublesome combination and can be a real trigger for acting out behaviors. With some advance planning, however, we can improve our resilience in such situations. This might include a telephone list of friends who will be home and whom you can call at any time; bringing along a friend to a complicated and uncomfortable social gathering; or “sandwiching” a stressful event between meetings both before and after.
  1. Manage Your Attitudes. Every person involved in a recovery process has some experience with self-reflection regarding their beliefs and attitudes, as well as their patterns of emotional reactions and behaviors. These self-reflective skills can be extremely useful. This is especially true since we often tend to regress (or lose) some of our “adult” coping skills when under stress and unless we actively practice them. Be aware of any self-talk that seems particularly critical and consciously replace it with positive affirmations. Notice when you are feeling like a victim or becoming angry or lonely and take a few minutes to be mindful of what just happened and then to complete a brief gratitude list. This process, along with the list itself, has great power to reverse uncomfortable emotions. Especially during this season, know yourself and utilize all your skills to manage your thoughts and emotional reactions.
  1. Be of Service. It is natural during the holidays to get very wrapped up in ourselves and our challenges. As a result, we lose perspective and forget that giving and receiving are really what the spirit of the season is all about. While service to others can benefit those served, we know that we ourselves receive far more through the act of helping someone else. Take time during the holidays to volunteer or, if you are able, consider sponsoring a Christmas dinner for a family that could otherwise not afford it. Only by getting out of ourselves through service are we able to connect to others in meaningful ways.

While the holidays present significant challenges they offer great opportunities, as well. We don’t have to relive painful holidays from the past. We can instead recreate our traditions, change old and destructive patterns, and celebrate the holidays with people we love and who love us, in return.

Wishing everyone a wonderful holiday season and a healthy 2019!