Holiday Stress and Substance Abuse: Top 7 Tips for Avoiding a Relapse

The holidays can be stressful to begin with, but for people with drug and alcohol addiction, the holidays pose a high chance of relapsing. There are a lot of physical, mental, and social reasons for relapse during the holidays, but here are seven tips for avoiding drugs and alcohol during the season. With these tips, and through comprehensive rehab, you can work to avoid a step backward.

The holidays come with a certain and unmistakable set of sounds: tinny carols being played over department store speakers, the rush of a colder wind as night falls earlier, the tearing of wrapping paper, and of course the clinking of glasses ringing throughout voices raised in gathering. While for many this all sounds joyful, for someone suffering from drug addiction or alcoholism, it can be an easy gateway to relapse.

The holidays come with their own set of stresses and expectations, augmented by endless work, family, and friend parties. These combine to make a perfect formula for relapse. It’s a scary and dangerous time for an addict. But it doesn’t have to be.

Recognizing the potential stressors of a holiday, and taking steps to avoid or to mitigate them, is the way for you to navigate the pitfalls of December. It isn’t always easy, but it can be done, especially when backed by comprehensive addiction treatment. It means that you can, potentially, join your voice to the gathered joyful.

Why Holiday Stress Can Lead to Substance Abuse

For some, it seems like a contradiction that the happiness of the holidays can bring misery; for others, it seems sadly intuitive. Regardless of how you feel, the numbers back it up: this time of year sees an enormous spike in drug and alcohol relapses.

There are a lot of reasons why holiday stress can lead to substance abuse. For many, there are private reasons relating to family matters, old wounds, buried grievances, and more. The holidays have a way of dredging those up. All of these are exacerbated by some of the following December issues.

  • Excessive drinking by others. Whether it is the office party, your family gatherings, friends in town wanting to meet up, or anything else, the holidays mean alcohol. That is dangerous for alcoholics and those with drug addictions. There is a lot of pressure to get involved and be “joyful”. That pressure can often be overwhelming.
  • Feelings of not fitting in. You might not feel like you fit in at parties. You might not feel like you fit in at all during the season, since everyone else seems so happy. In truth, the holidays make most people stressed and anxious. But those feelings can be extremely challenging.
  • Darker days (SAD). Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real biological condition brought on by the shorter days and longer nights. It affects a lot of people differently, but the lethargy and depression it brings can exacerbate all the other holiday issues.
  • Forced joy. It’s hard to fake. You can feel like a fraud or a killjoy. You are neither, but the stress of trying to be happy, to please others, can be difficult to manage.
  • Overeating. We all overeat during the holidays, but feeling lethargic or being angry at yourself can be a trigger for relapse.
  • Lack of Sleep. No one makes the best decisions when they are short on sleep, and the non-stop pace of the holidays leaves you burning candles on both ends. That’s a dangerous state.

While this seems inevitable, it doesn’t have to be this way. These tips can help make the holidays easier to cope with.

7 Tips for Avoiding Drug and Alcohol Relapse During the Holidays

Everyone will have different solutions, but here are seven broad tips for navigating the pitfalls of December.

  1. Plan Your Day. If you have a plan of when you are getting up, when you are seeing people, when you are leaving what work event, then you won’t be surprised. Decide your limits and what you can tolerate in advance, and stick to it. Having that schedule, that routine, and that resolve can go a long way.
  2. Leave if you aren’t feeling comfortable. If you are at a work event, and it is getting harder to avoid partaking, then leave. Don’t worry if Gary from Sales calls you “a bummer”. That doesn’t matter. This can be harder at a family party, especially if your spouse drinks, but planning in advance can help. Arrange so that they have a ride if you leave early, or you both have ways to get home. Planning in advance makes leaving early a breeze.
  3. Prepare your responses. You might be around a lot of people who don’t know your history. There may be pressure to drink or engage in other types of “festive” substance use. It helps if you already have planned what you will say, whether that is telling them you are in rehab, or just “no, I gotta get up early.”
  4. Be healthy. Get enough sleep. Plan your meals in advance so you can eat healthily. Get exercise. Not only will you feel better and have more energy to plan and to handle situations, but taking care of yourself helps beat SAD and any other holiday lethargy. Feeling good about yourself is a vital part of anyone’s self-care, especially someone suffering from addiction.
  5. Use your support system. Your family and friends and others who understand what you are going through will be there for you. Don’t worry about asking them for help, or to lend an ear, or guide you through a party. The holidays are about helping each other out and being there for each other. Your support group is there for you.
  6. Attend meetings. If you attend alcohol or drug addiction meetings, don’t stop your routine. Attend more if you need to. It’s important to maintain a routine and get the extra help when you need it.
  7. Take care of your mental health. If you’ve never tried meditation or other mental health exercises, now is a good time to start. It can help clear and heal the mind, giving you the mental strength you need to get through a challenging month.


Any or all of these tips can make things easier, but none are a cure or a guarantee. They can be put to use individually or in combination, and only you know what is exactly right for you. But discovering what is right can be helped by comprehensive therapy.

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The Benefit of Comprehensive Treatment

The best way to understand what you need during tough times is to understand your addictions and have them treated by people who know what they are doing. That’s what comprehensive addiction treatment does. It helps you get to the roots of your addictions and gives you the tools to combat them.

The holidays aren’t easy. The only way to get through them is to know what is coming, plan for how to deal with it, and use the support you have to execute that plan. And knowing yourself through therapy is the best way to understand what you have to do.

That makes a difference. It means you don’t have to isolate yourself if you don’t want to (and some people find that works for them, which is fine). But if you want to be around others, and take part in the warmth of the lights and the candles, have a plan. Have a goal. And have a great holiday season. You deserve it.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward lasting recovery.