Stress Management and Staying Sober During the Holidays

Tips to prevent holiday stress and depression

The holiday season often brings unwelcome guests — stress and depression. And it’s no wonder. The holidays present a dizzying array of demand — parties, shopping, baking, cleaning and entertaining, to name just a few. But with some practical tips, you can minimize the stress that accompanies the holidays. You may even end up enjoying the holidays more than you thought you would.

Acknowledge your feelings. If someone close to you has recently died or you can’t be with loved ones, realize that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. It’s OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holiday season.

Reach out. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.

Be realistic. The holidays don’t have to be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children can’t come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails or videos.

Set aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all of your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression, too.

Stick to a budget. Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Don’t try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts.

Living in Recovery and Avoiding Relapse during the Holidays

The holiday season can be a joyous time, but for those in recovery, it can also be a minefield. High expectations, overcommitment, and fatigue can lead to heightened emotions and mood swings. Travel and busy schedules increase stress. You might be away from your support network and routines, enhancing a feeling of isolation. Holiday customs, memories, and events associated with alcohol or other drug use may tug at you. But there are ways to prepare for this high-risk season and safeguard the greatest gift you ever gave yourself and those you love: your sobriety.

  1. Plan your support system ahead of time.
    Prepare a plan to support and protect your sobriety ahead of key holiday events, whether at work or leisure. This may mean going to a Twelve Step meeting before or after the event, attending the occasion with your sponsor or a friend in recovery, and making sure you can leave at any time and are not dependent on someone else for transportation. It can also include “bookending” the event with planned before-and-after telephone calls to someone in recovery. Limit time in stressful situations or around difficult people and always have an escape plan. Setting up support meetings ahead of time is “money in the bank.” Relapse prevention is about planning . . . recovery planning.
  2. Understand the emotional complexity of “the holidays.”
    Talk with your sponsor, a friend, or a professional counselor about the emotions and expectations you have wrapped up in the holidays. This is called “calculating reality.” The holidays will not be like they were when you were six years old. Everybody will be tired and stressed, possibly depressed, as past holiday disappointments may hang in the air. Know this. Awareness will help you lower expectations and be forgiving of yourself and others. Instead of entering a holiday event on the defensive, orient your thinking to be on the offensive: What is the next right thing for me to do in this situation? It’s also important to be aware that some people are most vulnerable after the holidays. The stress and resentments that may come up over the holidays can lead to rationalization—we can convince ourselves we’re entitled to drink or use—and sometimes as addicts we do better through the crisis than after it.
    Remember, the disease of addiction is as powerful the day after a holiday as it is the day before.
  3. Focus on others.
    The holidays offer a spiritual opportunity to practice focusing on others with gratitude and joy. Adopting this perspective can take tremendous courage. Because you are in recovery, you have already demonstrated the capacity for tremendous courage and change. Look for ways to think about others. Serve a meal at a homeless shelter. Reach out to a newcomer. Go sledding with children. Spend time with a neighbor who is confined.
  4. Keep track of what you are drinking and steer clear of rationalizations.
    At social gatherings, it’s generally helpful to have something to drink in your hand so people aren’t constantly offering you a drink. Be proactive! Get your own beverage, watch how it is being made, and keep track of it. If you ask someone to get a beverage for you, he or she may forget or not know your situation and bring you an alcoholic drink. If you accidentally pick up the wrong drink and swallow some alcohol, this doesn’t mean you will relapse but watch out for rationalizations, which could creep in: Hmm. I guess I can handle this after all. Perhaps my period of abstinence taught me how to control my drinking. No. Tell someone who is supportive of recovery about it as soon as possible. A mistake is not a relapse—but it can lead to one if kept a secret.
  5. Avoid vulnerable situations.
    If you know Aunt Lucy is going to criticize your hair and shoes, avoid her. If Uncle Bob will try to mix you a stiff drink, stay away from him. If you know the office New Year’s party is all about alcohol and other drugs, make a brief appearance or don’t attend. It is unrealistic to say, “I can soldier through.” The lesson of Step One of the Twelve Steps is: You don’t have the power. Alone we use. If you have to attend these events, use the helpful tactic covered in this handout. Ask for help.
  6. Remember self-care.
    Celebrate the holiday season by taking time for yourself. Proper nutrition and physical movement can be extremely helpful. The better you feel physically, the stronger you will be emotionally. Maintain your spirituality. The holidays are a time for reflection and connection with those you love. It is critical to take some quiet time each day for relaxation and meditation, even for a few minutes, no matter how busy you are.
  7. If you need treatment, consider getting it during the holidays.
    Many families mistakenly think the holidays are an inappropriate time for treatment, when actually it’s the best time. Their logic is that holidays are a happy time when everyone should be together, even if in reality this is not the case. Addiction generally ramps up over the holidays. The holidays more likely are an emotionally stressful time when use of alcohol or other drugs is prevalent, making it difficult for someone with addiction to avoid use. Treatment initiated during the holidays could be the best gift you give to your family.