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Sobriety and the Holidays: How To Be Prepared

December 21, 2021

For someone with a substance use disorder, maintaining sobriety can be a challenge any day, but the holiday season brims with temptation. Being prepared is the key to successfully sail into a sober new year.

“Holiday celebrations mean family, friends, festivities and often alcohol, or other mind-altering substances,” said Dr. J. Craig Allen, vice president of addictions for Hartford HealthCare and medical director of Rushford, part of the system’s Behavioral Health Network. “With 21 million Americans struggling with substance use disorders, creating an environment where people can have fun and feel comfortable even when abstaining is important.”

“For most of us, the Hallmark holiday isn’t our reality,” he said. “Family feuds, overcrowded stores, last minute to-do lists can seem overwhelming. The pressure to be having a wonderful time can be stressful in itself.”

Everyone, Dr. Allen went on, can benefit from healthy coping strategies. For someone in early recovery, increased stressors can kindle the parts of the brain that can drive drug seeking behavior and a return to use.

If you love someone who struggles with alcohol or other substance use disorders, he said you can help pave the way through the holidays by being mindful of triggers and helping the person make healthy choices.

This can include:

  • Giving someone an out. Develop a plan of action for what to do if the environment starts to feel “unsafe.” Having someone to partner with who understands the stress and can be supportive such as being prepared to leave together.  Knowing someone is there can help lessen the anxiety.
  • Pay attention. Be aware of and try to avoid overt or even subtle messaging that encourages drinking such as “What’s that in your glass?” or “Another cup of holiday cheer?”
  • Focus on the socializing, not the substances. Try hosting a social event that doesn’t include or emphasize alcohol. Be creative. Get people together for a wintery hike or create a holiday lights scavenger hunt.
  • Schedule small group time. Suggest a spin class or coffee to create a low-key time in the middle of a stressful season.
  • Be inclusive. Someone striving to maintain recovery benefits from camaraderie, friendship and activities, so change the atmosphere not the guest list.

“If you know someone with a substance use disorder, take the time to reach out this season. Check in. It’s the best gift you can give,” Dr. Allen said.