Navigating Joyful Celebrations: Overcoming Challenges and Embracing Family Bonds during the Holidays

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 the holidays can act as significant triggers. Understanding how to manage these before and during the main event is essential for avoiding relapses.

This time of year is full of both celebration and for some, sorrow. 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 the holidays 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 holiday table.

Many of these factors, and others, coincide to make the holiday season 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 the end of the year 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.

Set Boundaries and Limits on Family Gatherings

Holiday gatherings 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.
  • Set a time limit for staying at an event and stick with it.
  • Bring a sober friend to 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 holiday meal.

“For my last Christmas, 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 your holiday celebration 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 the holidays. 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, 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, 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.

This can be a fun time of year! Make this holiday season 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. We like to celebrate the holidays together as a recovery family and we’d love for you to learn more about our treatment program if you or a loved one needs help.

Contact us today to start the journey toward lasting recovery.