If this is your first Thanksgiving in recovery, you may be feeling anxious about how you’ll handle sobriety in social settings, around family members, and at friend gatherings.
Your first sober Thanksgiving can bring on a range of emotions and fears, but there are ways to get through it successfully.
Reasons People Relapse On Thanksgiving
It’s important to first be aware of the potential pitfalls and risk factors for relapse on Thanksgiving.
Your triggers, high-risk situations, and stressors vary depending on your individual experience with mental health and addiction. However, there are a few shared risks among those in recovery.
Some of the risk factors for relapse during your first Thanksgiving may include:
- seeing old friends, especially those associated with drug or alcohol use
- visiting home and experiencing trauma responses, intense emotions, and difficult memories
- seeing others drink alcohol or use drugs
- social anxiety over meeting new people, seeing family, or being in a large crowd
- mental health issues related to depression, PTSD, anxiety, and more
- family tensions
8 Tips To Help You Through Your First Sober Thanksgiving
If this is your first Thanksgiving in recovery, you likely haven’t had the chance to build healthy patterns and coping mechanisms for the holiday.
Now is the time to begin those new practices for yourself. Think through some of the tips below, or use them as a starting point to develop your own plan of action for Thanksgiving this year.
1. Start Your Day In The Right Headspace
If you know you’ll be walking into a tense house of family members or an environment that will have alcohol, it’s important to start your day off right by calming your mind and body.
You can do this by:
- practicing gratitude out loud or in a journal
- attending a peer recovery group, such as AA or a SMART Recovery group
- praying, if you prefer a spiritual approach to recovery
- practicing mindfulness, if you prefer a non-religious approach to recovery
Many people choose to attend a recovery group, such as those mentioned above, in the morning before Thanksgiving activities start.
Each of these can be helpful tools to remind you of your goals, your motivations, and your reasons for pursuing sobriety, all of which will help you avoid relapse or other issues later on.
2. Choose Your Group Wisely
A study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) argues the importance of your social circle and support network.
The study found that when a person in recovery has friends who accept substance use, they’re less likely to remain abstinent.
Conversely, those who have friends who support their abstinence showed a significant and positive association with abstinence from substance use.
Your health and recovery should be your top priority, even if it means missing out on Thanksgiving dinner with friends who typically engage in and encourage you to drink or use drugs.
Spend time with people who uplift you in recovery, and avoid those who usually partake in heavy drinking or drug use.
3. Bring Your Own Drink
While in an ideal world, you’d be able to spend time with those who encourage abstinence and sobriety, you may not have that option for Thanksgiving.
If you’d like to spend Thanksgiving with your family and you know they typically drink at family gatherings, you can bring your own drink.
Your friends or family may provide other drink options, but this will ensure you have a non-alcoholic option if there are no other drinks available.
Choose a beverage you enjoy, one you don’t have on an average day. This can encourage the festive attitude of enjoying a drink on Thanksgiving without posing a risk to your sobriety.
4. Know Your Triggers
Be aware of what makes you feel anxious, depressed, worried, or lonely, and think of ways to practice mindfulness and self-care in those moments.
Thanksgiving can be full of triggers for many people in recovery (seeing family, expectations, pressure to perform, and being around drinking, among others).
Before the day arrives, take the time to consider what these triggers are. If you’ve completed an addiction treatment program, think back to what you discussed in individual and group therapy.
Then, you can be prepared to handle the triggers that arise and have a response ready to go. If you’ve been in recovery for any amount of time, you’ve likely already begun this practice.
5. Lean On Skills Learned In Drug Or Alcohol Treatment
Those who have gone through an inpatient, outpatient, or residential treatment program have a new skill set ready to be used in the real world.
In a recovery program, you’re taught to avoid-high risk situations, or to at least be aware of them so you can be better prepared to handle the circumstances.
Before you arrive at a Thanksgiving meal, determine whether this is a high-risk situation, and how you can deal with issues that arise.
Other helpful skills you can lean on from treatment include:
- anger and frustration management
- key findings from individual and family therapy
- coping strategies for stressful situations
- finding support and asking for help
- creating and maintaining healthy habits
- managing cravings
- developing contingency plans
6. Take Breaks And Rest As Needed
Being around more people than usual, especially if you don’t see those people often and they don’t understand your recovery journey, can be exhausting and anxiety-inducing.
Make sure you’re listening to your body’s cues and respond to them. Just because it’s Thanksgiving does not mean you need to spend every moment with your loved ones.
Keep your health and sobriety as your first priority. If you start to feel overwhelmed, or a trigger sets off a craving or negative response, pull a friend aside to talk or get some space alone.
7. Create An Exit Strategy
If the situation becomes too big of a threat to your recovery (for example, if there is heavy drinking you can’t escape from), it’s perfectly acceptable to leave.
You might consider creating a mental note of what is and isn’t manageable for you, so you can be prepared to leave when necessary.
8. Be Open And Honest
Keep in mind that if you’re spending the day with loved ones who know about your recovery, you can share with them your triumphs and difficulties.
If there is anyone there you trust and know you can talk to, try confiding in them when you’re finding it difficult to manage certain emotions.
Recovery is not an individual process, you need the support of peers and loved ones who are rooting for your success. If this Thanksgiving is tough, be honest and communicate that.
What To Do If You Relapse On Thanksgiving
It’s not uncommon to relapse after an initial stage of sobriety. If a relapse happens over Thanksgiving, know that this is a normal cycle and you are still on the path to recovery.
Relapse prevention programs are designed to address relapse and help those in recovery to alter their strategies to prevent it from occurring again.
There’s also a difference between a lapse and a relapse. A lapse is a short-term, one-time step back into old habits. This might look like having a drink at Thanksgiving.
A relapse is a return to the same, or similar, level of substance use as before. This might look like drinking at Thanksgiving after a stressful moment, and continuing to do so for the rest of the week.
In both situations, you can address a lapse or relapse by getting back into therapy, attending peer support groups, finding a low-intensity outpatient or continuing care program, or another treatment.
Resources For Those In Addiction Recovery On Thanksgiving
If you’d like to find more ways to prepare yourself for Thanksgiving, review some of the resources below to get started.
Here are organizations and tools you can use before your first Thanksgiving in recovery:
- Alcoholics Anonymous, Find Local A.A.: Find an AA support group to attend before Thanksgiving.
- Mental Health America, Take a Mental Health Test: You can use this tool to screen yourself for mental health issues.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Preventing and Preparing for a Mental Health Crisis: This article discusses how to plan for and deal with a mental crisis.
- NAMI, NAMI Peer-to-Peer: This is a free, 10-session educational program for adults with mental illness to assist in their recovery journey.
- SMART Recovery Toolbox: Here you’ll find methods, worksheets, and exercises to assist you in your addiction recovery process.
- SMART Recovery, Search SMART Recovery Meetings in Your Area: Find other support groups run by SMART Recovery in person or online.
- National Center for Biotechnology Information — Chapter 5—Specialized Substance Abuse Treatment Programs
- National Center for Biotechnology Information — Pathways to Long-Term Recovery: A Preliminary Investigation
- National Center for Biotechnology Information — Rates and predictors of relapse after natural and treated remission from alcohol use disorders