Often, the holidays come with families, friends, and loved ones gathered around dinner tables and sharing in the joy of the season together.
However, many of these events — Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas parties, backyard barbecues — center on alcohol, or involve drinking in some way.
For our loved ones recovering from addiction, this can be a difficult time of year as they battle between the desire to see loved ones, and not wanting to be surrounded by triggers of relapse.
Below are several action steps you, your friends, and your family members can take to be more mindful of someone in recovery over the holidays.
Tips For Helping Loved Ones In Addiction Recovery Over The Holidays
Many of us have close loved ones who live with alcohol or drug addiction. Instead of choosing activities that exclude them from the holiday festivities, there are ways to be inclusive and mindful of their recovery.
These include small changes, such as switching champagne for sparkling cider or offering a helping hand, that can make all the difference for someone who’s in recovery.
1. Consider The Environment
If your friend group typically gets together at a bar downtown each year for Christmas, New Year’s, or another holiday, consider choosing a new location.
Places like bars and clubs can be hard for someone who’s recovering from alcohol or drug addiction, especially if they’re still in the early stages of recovery.
Some people in recovery might be able to realistically manage their cravings and triggers in a sports bar, while others may find it much more difficult.
To respect and support your loved one’s recovery, have your gathering at someone’s house, a restaurant, a park, or some other neutral location.
2. Avoid Serving Alcohol
No alcohol is always the safest and most respectful option, but you may also consider where your loved one is at in their recovery to decide if having alcohol present is appropriate.
Someone who’s gone through an inpatient treatment program and has a few years of sobriety under their belt may feel all right around alcohol, but this isn’t the case for everyone.
Even with weeks, months, or years of sobriety, those triggers still exist, and being around alcohol can lead to the relapse of a drug or alcohol addiction.
For the next friend or family get-together over a holiday, avoid serving alcohol and instead provide non-alcoholic options.
There are many types of alcohol-free cocktails, punches, and sparkling drinks that can allow each guest to get into the festive spirit without bringing alcohol into the picture.
3. Start New Traditions
Many people participate in the same traditions that come around year after year, some of which can involve drinking games, going out to bars or clubs, wine tasting nights, and more.
If you have a loved one in recovery who will be attending one of these gatherings, this year may be the perfect opportunity to begin a new tradition together.
Families and friend groups can fill the night with:
- non-drinking-related games
- watching a football game
- going out to a neutral location, such as bowling, a movie, or dancing
- a gift exchange
4. Be Aware Of Mental Health Concerns
The difficulties that come with the holidays usually aren’t limited to that day.
The days and weeks leading up to a major holiday can create anxieties, set off triggers, cause depression, and other responses in someone who’s recovering from addiction.
Be mindful of how your loved one may be feeling during this time, and offer to help or be a listening ear if they need it.
Some of the early signs of mental health issues you might see include:
- withdrawing from friends and family members
- visible anxiety over the coming holiday
- changes in appetite, such as overeating and indulging in holiday foods, or refusing to eat at all
- a lack of personal hygiene
- a lack of desire to participate in holiday activities they usually enjoy
- avoiding parties and social gatherings
- forgetting about or neglecting responsibilities and social engagements
- little to no motivation or excitement
If you see any of the above signs or other symptoms of a mental health condition, encourage your loved one to reach out for support, and be a support for them.
They can do this by:
- speaking to their sponsor if they attend AA
- attending recovery groups
- talking with a counselor
- opening up to friends or family members
Don’t wait for them to ask for help. Your loved one might not tell you when something’s wrong. Many people in recovery don’t want to burden their loved ones with troubles, especially around the holidays.
5. Ask Them About Their Triggers
A person’s recovery journey is personal and uniquely theirs. They may deal with certain triggers that you’re unaware of.
But if you know a few things they struggle with, you can be aware of them and help them to avoid those situations and create an exit plan.
For example, if cooking a dish for a Thanksgiving meal is stressful for your loved one, invite them to bring a pre-cooked option, a dessert from the grocery store bakery, or some other option that doesn’t involve prep time and cooking.
Here are a few triggers that may arise for those in recovery over the holidays, and how to address them together:
- financial burden of purchasing gifts: Set a limit on how much everyone should spend on gifts, or do a white elephant gift exchange that only involves purchasing one item.
- family stress: A person in recovery might be faced with difficult conversations and anxiety when seeing family. Be mindful of this, and try having a smaller gathering.
- watching others drink: Being around those who are drinking can be a major trigger for someone in recovery, so try an alcohol-free celebration.
- heightened emotions: Your loved one might feel grief, depression, or loneliness around the holidays. Extend your support and spend time with them.
- changes in routine: Your loved one is more vulnerable to relapse during changes in routines and treatment. Help them to maintain their routines and keep them accountable.
Holidays That Can Be Hard On Recovery
Any major event or holiday can be stressful for someone recovering from alcohol or drug abuse, but there are a few holidays that typically present the greatest issues.
New Year’s Eve
For many people, New Year’s Eve is a time of celebration and partying. And when the morning comes, it’s a chance for a fresh start and new habits.
Both of these factors can make New Year’s a difficult time of sobriety and recovery for someone who’s trying to quit the use of drugs or alcohol.
Being witness to drinking and using drugs may cause someone to relapse. Additionally, the idea of a fresh start to the new year may be burdened by self-deprecating thoughts of failure and hardship.
Fourth Of July
Backyard grilling accompanied by day drinking, smoking, or other recreational substance use are commonplace among gatherings across the nation on the Fourth of July.
For your loved one in recovery, this can be a stressful situation to navigate, as they often must face alcohol consumption and resist the urge to give in to cravings.
Here’s how you can be mindful of your loved one in recovery over the Fourth of July.
Thanksgiving may bring about seasonal depression, anxiety over visiting with old family members, stress over hosting a meal, and difficulty managing triggers when alcohol is present.
While this may be a difficult holiday for your loved ones, there are ways you can support them to shift the focus to gratitude and gathering with loved ones rather than drinking.
With Christmas comes cold weather, expensive gift-buying, spiked drinks, office Christmas parties and happy hours, and much more that can cause relapse for someone in recovery.
You can support your loved one during the Christmas season by talking through some of these stressors with them and creating action steps together.
Relapse Prevention Strategies For The Holidays
If you or someone you love are recovering from drug addiction over the holidays, it’s crucial to maintain healthy practices of relapse prevention to enjoy the holiday and maintain recovery.
Here are a few ways to prevent relapse during the holiday season:
Enroll In Aftercare
For someone who has recently gone to an inpatient program, outpatient program, or drug and alcohol detox center, aftercare is key to recovery.
Going back home to old places and people can be intimidating, especially with the added high-risk situations and anxieties of the holiday seasons.
With an aftercare program, you can continue to work on the skills you learned in drug addiction treatment and ease the transition back to normal life.
Attend A Relapse Prevention Program
Relapse prevention programs involve therapy, group sessions, and skills development on an outpatient basis.
These programs usually meet once weekly but may be individualized to meet your recovery goals and schedule.
A relapse prevention program can help you identify triggers, create exit plans, get peer support from others in recovery, and work through difficult emotions that arise during the season.
If a relapse does occur, it’s not a sign of failure, but a chance to start again. These treatment programs can provide relapse management tools if this happens over a holiday.
Find A Support Group
There are many different types of support groups that a person in recovery can attend. No matter where you are, you can find an available support group, even on Christmas Day or another holiday.
These groups usually feature:
- peer support
- guidance and encouragement
- skills for relapse prevention
- counselors, if attending a licensed program
- educational classes or lectures
Examples of support groups you might find include:
- gender-specific groups for men and women
- specialized groups, such as groups for pregnant women or veterans in addiction recovery
- co-occurring disorder groups for those with addiction and a mental disorder, such as depression
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
- Narcotics Anonymous (NA)
- Cocaine Anonymous (CA)
Resources For Those In Recovery Over The Holidays
We’ve gathered several resources that may help you or your loved one to get through the holidays this year.
Here are a few resources for loved ones of those in recovery:
- Al-Anon Family Groups, Al-Anon Electronic Meetings: Find a virtual Al‑Anon meeting to get support if you have a loved one in recovery.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Stigma Reduction: Learn about the effects of addiction, recovery options, and relapse prevention.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), NAMI Family Support Group: This is a peer-led support group for adults with loved ones who have a mental health condition.
- Partnership to End Addiction, Creating a Plan: This resource is for parents of teens or young adults in need of help for substance use.
- SMART Recovery, SMART Recovery Family & Friends: This is a science-based support group for those with loved ones in addiction recovery.
- University of Rochester Medical Center, Helping a Friend with an Addiction: Find information about the symptoms of addiction and how to support friends with addiction.
The following are resources for those in recovery during the holidays:
- Harvard Health Publishing, Navigating the holidays in recovery: This resource provides information about recovery during winter holidays and how to plan for triggers.
- Mental Health America (MHA), How To Navigate Alcohol Addiction Recovery Over The Holidays: Helpful strategies for those recovering from drug addiction during the holidays.
- MHA, I’m Looking For Mental Health Help For Myself: What to do if you’re in crisis or need support for substance use and mental illness.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call (800) 273-8255 for free and confidential support in times of distress and crisis resources.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Treatment Services Locator: Find peer support, outpatient programs, and relapse prevention near you.
- Veterans Crisis Line: Veterans can call this hotline to speak to responders with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) about addiction or mental health crises.
- JAMA Network — Management of Adults Recovering From Alcohol or Other Drug Problems Relapse Prevention in Primary Care
- National Center for Biotechnology Information — The Christmas Effect on Psychopathology
- National Center for Biotechnology Information — How Does Stress Lead to Risk of Alcohol Relapse?
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) — Recognizing Holiday Triggers of Trauma