Why Are the Holidays So Stressful for People in Recovery?
The holidays are supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. For those of us in recovery, however, the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day can be a time of increased anxiety, temptation, and potential backsliding.
The holiday season has a unique ability to bring out the best and the worst in people. There’s an increased focus on family, friends, and social interaction during this time. However, increased stress, unexpected triggers, and unrealistic expectations can quickly outweigh the positive qualities of the season.
What Makes the Holidays So Difficult During Recovery?
For those of us in recovery, holiday stress can cause dormant behaviors to re-emerge. That’s because people tend to return to old habits during times of increased stress.
While keeping an alcohol- and drug-free home is essential to your recovery success, that might not be the case for the rest of your family and friends. At a lot of holiday parties and gatherings, it’s almost a given that alcohol will be accessible and people around you will be drinking. For some, the fear of relapse is so great that they completely avoid festive activities and opt for isolation instead.
The holidays also have the potential to reopen unresolved wounds. Though it might feel “mandatory” to spend time with family during the holidays, some of these interactions pose additional dangers to your recovery – especially if you have lingering family dysfunction or strained relationships. Family get-togethers can trigger unhappy memories of past holiday seasons or ugly encounters with a toxic relative. In the blink of an eye, you can be blindsided by powerful memories and sent into an emotional tailspin ending in relapse.
Unfortunately, many people don’t have the support of family members after getting clean and sober. When the holidays roll around, instead of spending this festive time surrounded by your loved ones, you find yourself all alone. The loneliness can feel particularly painful during this time of the year, and the disease of addiction will do its best to convince you that all the work you’ve put into your recovery is pointless.
Intense emotions – grief, abandonment, depression, anger, and many others – can trigger psychological cravings at any time. And if you don’t have a solid support system in place, it’s easy to feel alone and struggle with episodes of backsliding during this intensely family-focused season.
Tis’ the Season…for Triggers?
Relapse triggers are social, environmental, or emotional situations that remind people in recovery of their past drug or alcohol use. These triggers bring about urges that may lead to a relapse. While triggers do not force a person to use drugs, they increase the likelihood of drug use.
Simply put, the holiday traditions, memories from childhood, and family get-togethers you associate with drug or alcohol use can turn your emotions upside down and put your recovery at risk.
Common issues that might show up as triggers during the holiday season can include:
- Uncomfortable Conversations: During the holidays, it’s common to see relatives or acquaintances that you don’t normally see any other time of the year. If these people don’t know you’re in recovery, they might ask questions or make comments that cause you to feel uncomfortable, singled out, or unwelcome.
- Family Conflict: Everyone wants a holiday gathering that’s filled with joy, but this is often an unrealistic expectation – especially for families with a history of dysfunction. Family members might hold grudges if your addiction disrupted last year’s holiday get-together. Others might play “helicopter family member,” following you like a child the entire party to make sure nothing bothers you. You might even have a few family members who think addiction is no big deal, so they hound you about having “just one drink.”
- Financial Strain: Addiction tends to take a serious financial toll on people. If you’re in early recovery, you probably don’t have a lot of extra money to spend on things. Unfortunately, the holidays can make you feel obligated to buy gifts for people that you otherwise wouldn’t. Trying to choose between paying your everyday bills and a growing list of holiday gifts can be stressful for anyone, but this is especially true for those in recovery.
Be sure to check back next week for the second blog in our holiday series where we’ll reveal tips to protect your sobriety throughout the holiday season.