As the holiday season gets into full swing, people across the country are preparing for feasting, fun and festivities. But the holidays also bring stress, and that stress creates a greater need for skills such as good time management, planning, organizing and remembering details, according to Harvard Medical School’s Department of Biology.1 This high level of demand and stress can send the brain into overdrive.

In 2015, only 10 percent of Americans reported no additional stress during the holidays, while 62 percent described their stress level as very high or somewhat high during the holidays. The most common stressors reported were related to finances, family dysfunction and maintaining good health habits.

The holiday season is particularly difficult for people in early recovery, for a variety of reasons. Maybe you equate holiday cheer with drugs or alcohol, or maybe you’ll be facing family members who will test your sobriety to the limit. You may be under particular financial strain after losing a job to drugs or alcohol, or you may be feeling less than joyful these days overall.

Rising to the challenges of the holidays while staying sober is largely a matter of planning ahead and preparing yourself for them. Here, then, is your guide to staying sober over the holidays, filled with tips and strategies for coping with whatever challenges the season brings.

Self-care is one of the most overlooked aspects of recovery, and yet it’s one of the most important.2 If you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re likely to have more mood swings and negative thoughts that can lead to a lapse. In fact, a lack of self-care is an important early sign of a lapse. Self-care means taking care of your body, mind and spirit.

Eat healthy food

A healthy diet promotes a stable mood, reduces cravings and helps you stay focused and energized. Eat a mostly plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds. Choose lean proteins like fish, poultry and pork. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.

Exercise

Daily exercise improves your mood, reduces cravings and stress and promotes making other healthy lifestyle choices.

Sleep

Inadequate sleep in recovery can lead to a lapse.3 A lack of sleep negatively affects your physical, emotional and mental well-being. Unfortunately, sleeping problems are common in early recovery. If you’re having any type of sleep trouble, such as insomnia or frequently waking up, talk to your doctor.

Combat isolation and loneliness

Feelings of isolation and loneliness can quickly lead to a lapse. When you’re feeling lonely, reach out to others. Go for coffee with a friend, or attend a support group meeting. Volunteering your time to a cause you feel strongly about can help combat loneliness by shifting your attention away from yourself while also enjoying the opportunity to meet and work with others.

Reduce stressors

Reducing stressors can help you maintain good mental health over the holidays. Think about the things that cause you stress, and brainstorm ways to reduce or eliminate those stressors. If finances and gift-giving are stressing you out, as they do most of us, consider cutting back. Talk to friends, family and co-workers about skipping gift exchanges, or try a white elephant exchange instead.

Schedule downtime

If the holidays are going to be keeping you busy, make sure you take time to be alone to relax and reflect.

Set realistic expectations for the holidays

The media would have us believe that the holidays are a magical time of joy and cheer, but that’s hardly the case for many Americans. Setting impossible expectations for the holidays can lead to stress, anxiety and depression. Think realistically about what you hope to get out of the holidays, and try to be flexible if things don’t go the way you’d hoped.

Relax and have fun

Fun and relaxation are extremely important during early recovery. Taking time to relax and rejuvenate helps you stay on an even emotional keel and better cope with stress and other triggers.

Engage in creative pursuits

Creative endeavors, such as making art or music, dancing or baking, help improve your self-awareness and offer a pathway for self-expression and enjoyment.

Spend time with the people you love. Deep connections to others are rewarding, and spending quality time with beloved friends and family will improve your motivation, mood and well-being.

This is part one of five in the series Staying Sober Over the Holidays. Next, read Staying Sober Over the Holidays, Part 2: Reduce Your Stress.


References:

  1. http://neuro.hms.harvard.edu/harvard-mahoney-neuroscience-institute/brain-newsletter/and-brain-series/holiday-stress-and-brain
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553654/
  3. https://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA14-4859/SMA14-4859.pdf