Holiday Stress and Family Triggers: Coping With Thanksgiving While in Recovery

The holiday season can be one big trigger for drug and alcohol relapse. Surveys have found that during this time, relapses increase by 150 percent. Family conflicts, holiday blues, a focus on partying and drinking, and overall stress leading up to and including Thanksgiving all act as significant triggers. Understanding how to manage these before and during the main event is essential for avoiding relapses.

Thanksgiving is a beloved holiday. Most people enjoy the eating and the gathering together, with family or friends or both.

For some people, though, a big family dinner can be triggering. Recovery is fragile, especially in its early stages.

Taking steps to reduce and manage the stress of holidays and time spent with family will reduce the risk of a relapse.

Everyone has their own reasons for relapsing, unique triggers that make it nearly impossible to not use again. Some of the more common triggers that tend to coincide with holidays like Thanksgiving and family gatherings include:

  • Difficult and changing emotions, like those that arise with family members you rarely see
  • Stress, which is often caused by holidays because of obligations, a time crunch, and expectations
  • Being around people with whom you used to use or drink, including friends home for the holidays
  • Being around drinking, which is very common at the Thanksgiving table

Many of these factors, and others, coincide to make Thanksgiving an especially difficult time for someone in recovery. If you can manage your own personal triggers, minimize them, and deal with them in healthy ways, you can avoid relapse and still enjoy the holiday.

Start Managing Stress Now


If you completed a good treatment program, you learned tools and strategies for coping with stress. You learned ways to lower stress in your life and how to cope with situations out of your control. Refresh these skills well before Thanksgiving and start implementing any preventative measures now.

For example, meditating daily can prepare you for stresses coming up as well as any anxiety and worry you feel leading up to the holiday. Not only has mindfulness practice, like meditation, been proven to reduce stress, it also reduces the risk of drug or alcohol relapse.

Avoid Drunksgiving


The Wednesday night before Thanksgiving is one of the biggest bar nights of the year, if not number one. Also known as Drunksgiving, friends who are home for the holidays enjoy reconnecting and often do it over a drink, or several.

Be very careful about this night. It’s tempting to go out and assume you can do it without drinking, but seeing others getting drunk and having fun is a powerful trigger. For anyone in recovery, especially early on, it’s best to avoid the bar. Try an alternative:

“When I came home for Thanksgiving last year, I was in solid recovery. I felt good about not drinking and really wanted to go out with friends for Wednesday night. My boyfriend convinced me it was a bad idea, so I stayed home and sulked for an hour until he surprised me. He had invited my friends over to hang out for a sober game night. It was so great, and I was really glad I didn’t go to the bar. It could have been a disastrous setback.” –Mira M.

Set Boundaries and Limits on Family Gatherings


Thanksgiving may be important to you and your family, but your health and well-being should come first. Know your limits and set them before the festivities begin. This could mean skipping the family event altogether. It’s not easy to disappoint people, but it’s important to make the choice that’s best for you. If you don’t feel you need to skip the holiday altogether but still need some limitations, keep these things in mind:

  • Stop thinking about other people’s needs. It’s okay to be a little selfish right now.
  • Choose your Thanksgiving event, whether that means with family, a friendsgiving, or staying home with your spouse or partner.
  • Set a time limit for staying at an event and stick with it.
  • Bring a sober friend to Thanksgiving dinner for support.
  • Tell your family about your limitations. If they don’t accept them, don’t feel bad about leaving.
  • Plan and host your own sober Thanksgiving meal.

“For my last Thanksgiving, my recovery was pretty new. I felt good about going to dinner, though, except for one thing: A cousin I used to get wasted with was coming and I didn’t know if I could handle being around him. I hadn’t seen him in over a year and knew it would be a major trigger. My parents hosted the dinner, and I talked about it with them first. I explained the situation, and they agreed to my plan: I would come over early and leave before Ethan arrived. He usually showed up late, so I got in a couple of hours with other family and no drinking. I never saw him, and while that made me a little sad, I knew it was the best choice that year.” –Dan N.

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Make a Therapy or Support Group Appointment Early in the Week


Addiction is a chronic illness. You need ongoing treatment just like with any other illness. Get a tune-up in advance of Thanksgiving with a therapy appointment or a support group meeting. Be proactive and set yourself up for success.

Treatment in advance prepares you for what’s ahead. Talk to your therapist or group about what worries you most about Thanksgiving. Discuss plans for how you’ll cope and what you’ll do in the event that some of your worst fears come true, like a family member pressuring you to drink. Talk about what you are truly thankful for, your health and sobriety for instance, and avoid dwelling on what you don’t have.

Take Care of Your Physical Health


Stress is not just a mental state. It also affects you physically. During holidays like Thanksgiving week, it is easy to let your good health habits slide. Make a point to take care of yourself physically so that you are better able to resist stress and cravings. Get enough sleep every night, eat well and avoid junk food, get some exercise, and spend time with friends doing something fun. Being physically well is crucial to managing family and holiday stress.

“I’ve been sober for a while, but family holiday events always trigger cravings. I have a difficult relationship with my mother, who drinks too much and refuses to stop. The Thanksgiving meal always goes well, but that’s part of the problem. Seeing everyone get a little tipsy together and have fun is tough. One of the most important things I’ve found that lowers my stress, keeps me healthy, and reduces my cravings to drink is running. For holidays like Thanksgiving, I make sure I pack my running gear. I plan runs for each day, even twice a day, and get some of my family to come with me. A run immediately relaxes me and brings the stress down so I can better resist the urge to have a glass of wine with everyone.” –Gail M.

Let Go of Expectations


The expectations of the holidays—to attend every event, to make that perfect dish for family dinner, to have fun—cause much of the stress of the season. We expect too much of this time of year, and of ourselves.

One of the most powerful things you can do to reduce stress and relapse risk is to let go of those expectations. It’s fine if you never get around to making that pie from scratch. Don’t worry if you decide at the last minute you can’t attend dinner. Let go of the expectation to enjoy yourself. You don’t like the holidays, and that’s fine. Change the scenery, do something different, do what you want to do, and stop following the expectations of others.

Thanksgiving can be a fun time of year, a day to enjoy a meal with family, and to be thankful. Make this holiday safe for you, and don’t let others talk you into anything that doesn’t feel right. Give thanks in your own way, whether that means going to dinner or staying home with your dog. When triggers abound and relapse feels likely, do what’s right for you.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders.

Contact us today to start the journey toward lasting recovery.