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When the Most Wonderful Time of the Year is the Most Troubling: Holidays and Sobriety

Table of Content

Table of Content

The most ‘wonderful’ time of year can be the most difficult for those in addiction recovery. In fact, excessive holiday alcohol consumption can even be harmful to those not suffering from substance use disorders.

If the words “I need a drink,” have crossed your mind… please keep reading.

Our Brains on Alcohol

Whether you battle a substance use disorder or not, alcohol’s effects on the brain are profound. Those holiday cocktails move fast to the brain, causing immediate cell damage. To boot, the chemical and physical changes brought on by alcohol actually make it difficult to stop drinking. When our brain is fed alcohol, it continues to think that it wants yet another round

Over time, continued alcohol consumption can cause chronic brain problems, some severe, like Wernicke’s disease, with symptoms including confusion and difficulty controlling gait and eye movement. Left untreated, alcohol use can cause Korsakoff’s syndrome, an irreversible disease marked by memory loss and the creation of false memories.

Despite these alarming possibilities, it’s still very hard to stop drinking. Drinking is publicly accepted, it’s everywhere, it’s legal. And, during the holidays, in many circles, it’s actually expected.  This time of year accounts for some of the highest incidents of binge drinking and related public health problems.

But, with the right encouragement, understanding, and patience, sobriety can be achieved over the holidays.


Use the following tips to support your sobriety during the holidays:

  1. Plan ahead: Always take a sober companion with you to holiday parties for extra support. You can also take your own car — or elect yourself as the designated driver — so only you are in control of when you arrive and leave.
  2. Avoid known risks: Safeguarding your recovery and staying sober must always come first. This means staying away from friends, co-workers or relatives who you suspect may pressure you to use drugs or alcohol. If you know a holiday party will revolve around substance use, make a brief appearance or consider skipping it altogether.
  3. Eat well: The holidays can certainly tempt us to overindulge in all our favorite foods. Choose healthy foods that will make you want to celebrate — not feel guilty. We all know negative feelings like guilt and embarrassment are harbingers of relapse, so it’s important to engage in activities we know will make us feel good.
  4. Celebrate relationships: Instead of making drinking and eating the focus of holiday parties, go into each gathering with the intention to establish or rekindle genuine connections.
  5. Prioritize self-care: Celebrate the holiday season by taking time out for yourself. Restorative sleep, gentle exercise and proper nutrition can work wonders for your well-being. Try to put aside some time each day for meditation and relaxation, no matter how busy you are.
  6. Create new traditions: Plan activities that do not revolve around drug or alcohol use. Try watching movies, decorating cookies or ice skating.
  7. Make an elevator speech: Prepare a statement so you are ready when someone tries to pass you a glass of champagne at the table. Remember, you don’t have to talk about your sobriety. However, if you are questioned, an elevator speech will help you feel comfortable and confident in delivering your answer.
  8. Make a backup plan: Have an escape plan in case you find yourself in a situation where you feel a strong urge to use drugs or drink.
  9. Practice gratitude: Every day, try listing three things you’re grateful for. Fostering an attitude of gratitude will help prevent possible relapse.

How to Gift Support to Those in Recovery During the Holidays:

  1. Be patient and gentle. It’s the small things that make the biggest difference. Give them a shoulder squeeze if they look like they need a boost; interrupt a confrontational conversation; quietly place a soda in their hand so they can avoid the bar; make them feel included; and give them permission to leave early or opt-out of events.
  2. Don’t make a big deal. Don’t draw attention to your friend’s sobriety. Aim for subtle support.

And, if you don’t want to take my medical word for it that holiday sobriety can be done, ask our Gateway Alumni. They tell us that their sobriety transforms a traditionally-difficult season into a time of deeper joy and gratitude. That their new sober path offers up new opportunities for authentic communication and enriched relationships.

Here is to you this holiday season. May it continue to be happy and healthy.

Roueen Rafeyan is the Chief Medical Officer at Gateway, the country’s largest, nonprofit treatment provider specializing in substance use disorder prevention and treatment.

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