You’ll often find yourself in situations around others who are freely drinking or enjoying other substances. The holidays can also be a time of significant stress, sadness, or other emotional triggers that can challenge your ability to cope.
Luckily, there are ways to plan and prepare for this potential minefield, and lower your risk of using alcohol or drugs over the holidays. Here are a few:
Ask yourself what kinds of situations put you most at risk for using, such as parties or family gatherings.
“This is the most important thing you can do to avoid relapse,” says Dr. Sharifi. “It’s always best to simply avoid high-risk situations. However, this isn’t always possible—especially during the holidays.”
If a high-risk situation cannot be avoided, Dr. Sharifi suggests being prepared. If you know that you are going into a high-risk situation, spend some time beforehand thinking of ways to cope with cravings if they occur.
If you’re headed into a risky situation such as a holiday party where there may be alcohol or substances, make a plan for the night. Take a sober friend with you if you can. Ask about alternative drinks—perhaps even bring your own. Don’t volunteer to be the designated driver, because that means you’ll need to stay until the end of the evening. Make sure you have your own transportation, and plan an exit strategy if you nee to, such as a fake emergency or engagement—even have a friend “call you away.”
“Having a plan in place is key,” says Dr. Sharifi. The more strategies you have available, the more able you’ll be able to stay safe. And even just knowing you have a plan in place will lower your stress level and your anxiety, making you less likely to want to use.”
Everyone has different triggers, so ask yourself what yours are. What types of things trigger cravings for your drug of choice? For instance, a very common trigger for substance use is simple stress, which is a normal part of the holiday season. Even seeing loved ones can be a trigger for some. So it’s important to regularly do things that can help you lower your stress, such exercising, talking with supportive friends (or sponsors), or engaging in relaxation strategies, such as deep breathing and mindfulness.
“Small decisions can have big consequences,” explains Dr. Sharifi. “So watch out for things that may seem irrelevant. They can lead us to higher and higher-risk situations for using.”
For example, let's say that you go to a restaurant and the only table open is near the bar. It might seem like a small decision, but being near the bar may make it more likely that you’ll be triggered and increase the likelihood you might drink. Instead, it might be best to wait a few minutes for another table to open up or go to another restaurant.
It might seem like nearly every social activity during the holidays involves alcohol and a strong possibility for drug use, but that’s not always the case. Lots of holiday activities can be substance-free, such going for a walk with family or friends, seeing Christmas light displays, going ice skating, volunteering, and more. Come up with a list of activities that will allow you to celebrate the holiday season and not put you at risk for use.
Sometimes the most effective support you can receive is social support. If you’re going to a party or event where you think you might be triggered for using, bring someone who won’t use anything (including alcohol).
It’s also important to tell others you’re trying not to drink or use. “If others have this information, they are probably not going to ask you if you want anything to drink or use,” Dr. Sharifi points out. “They can also let others know to not offer you these things too. Not being offered drugs or alcohol helps lower your risk of using.”
7. Remember that if you do use, it’s not the end of the world
Recovery is a journey, not a destination. If you do use, watch out for the “F#%$@ it” factor. In other words, don’t say to yourself, “F#%$@ it—I already used a little bit and I’m back to square one, so I might as well use more.”
“A lapse is a learning experience,” explains Dr. Sharifi. “It tells us you need more coping strategies for a certain situation. Talk to your support network about how you can learn from the situation, then you can come up with more coping mechanisms.”
With contributions from Dr. Heather Fulton.