Navigating Thanksgiving Sobriety: Staying Strong Amidst the Cheers

Thanksgiving dinner is a time of celebration, which often includes alcohol. For people in recovery, it can be a major cause of relapse. Being around family and old friends, the stress of the holidays, and simply seeing other people drink are potent triggers. Anyone struggling to stay sober this time of year needs to be aware of the challenges and their triggers and develop a plan for resisting the urge to drink.

If you have hard-won sobriety heading into the holidays, Thanksgiving dinner may be your first real challenge. Don’t let it derail your progress. Although the urge to drink may be strong, you can beat it if you tackle it head-on.

Understanding why Thanksgiving dinner increases your urge to drink is the first important step in combating it. You are far from alone in struggling to stay sober during the holidays. When you know the reasons, you can fight back with strategies and plans that help you resist going down the slippery slope of alcohol.

Why This Time of Year Is So Difficult for Staying Sober

The holidays, including Thanksgiving, throw up all kinds of challenges and roadblocks for people in recovery. This is true for drinking, drugs, other types of addiction, and mental illness. If you have mental health conditions and are also sober, the difficulty level multiplies.

There are several reasons the holiday season may push you to break sobriety and take a drink:

  • It upends your regular routine. Drinking is a learned habit supported by routine. A new routine supports recovery, but the holidays turn that on its head. They leave gaps and openings where you may reach for alcohol.
  • Parties abound, and during a festive Thanksgiving dinner, most people will be drinking. You may have friends in town wanting to go out Wednesday night, the biggest bar night of the year. Simply being around drinking is a major trigger.
  • The holidays can be challenging for mental health. Many people report worse symptoms of mental illness. Those without diagnosed mental illness often feel more stressed, anxious, or even depressed than usual. Mental health symptoms can push you to drink and weaken your resolve to stay sober.
  • You’re around people you don’t regularly see. Thanksgiving brings you into contact with friends and family you may only see once a year or less. This disruption can lead to drinking, especially if you have issues with any of them that trigger past negative feelings.

These, and other personal factors, will make Thanksgiving a challenge if you’re in recovery, especially if you are newly sober. Drinking was probably a powerful coping mechanism for you in the past, and that’s a tough habit to break.

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What You Can Do To Resist the Urge to Drink – Tips and Tricks

Don’t go into Thanksgiving unprepared. It’s dangerous to assume your sobriety is strong enough to handle a big dinner, a celebration, and people drinking around you. Face this challenge head-on with a plan.

  • Know your triggers. This step is probably one of the first things you learned in recovery. Triggers are feelings, people, situations, and events that trip the wire on the urge to drink. You may be familiar with day-to-day triggers but take time to consider what else might trigger you at Thanksgiving dinner. Is it a specific family member or a friend in town for a holiday? Maybe you haven’t been to gatherings since you’ve been in recovery. Social drinking around you could be a significant trigger.
  • Manage those triggers. Recognizing what might set off your urge to drink is the first step in successfully resisting a drink, but it’s probably not enough. Strategize how to cope with and manage them. For example, if the absence of a loved one recently lost is a trigger, plan a toast or memorial to celebrate that individual at the dinner.
  • Team up with a sober buddy. Accountability is a powerful tool. When you struggle to hold yourself accountable, a friend can help. If you know someone else not drinking, you can be there for each other. Talk before the dinner about plans and strategies and how you will keep each other on track. If you don’t know someone else who is sober, ask someone you trust to go sober just for this night to help you.
  • Bring an alternative. Don’t count on the dinner host to have something for you to drink other than water. Bring what you like to drink. Many people like to toast at a dinner like this, so have something ready to go in your champagne glass, like sparkling water or cider.
  • Distract yourself from urges. No matter how well you plan or strategize, you will feel the urge to drink. Dealing with that sensation at the moment is essential. Distraction can be beneficial. When the urge hits, find something to break your focus on wanting a drink. Get some more food, play with the kids at the party, or talk to someone you know isn’t drinking. A simple break from what you’re doing or thinking can be enough to put the urge out of your mind.
  • Prepare a mantra. Words are powerful, and so is self-talk. Come prepared to dinner with a mantra to use when you have the urge to drink. It could be something like, I don’t need alcohol to enjoy the event, or I am too strong to give in and ruin my hard-won recovery. Repeat this before the event and during as needed.
  • Take a timeout. If you need to step outside during the middle of an urge to drink, do it. A quick walk around the block or just a minute on the phone with a friend can be enough to get you back on track.
  • Imagine the party is over. When you find yourself in a challenging moment with someone or with the urge to pick up a glass of wine, use your imagination. Remind yourself that in a few hours, you’ll be safe at home. Picture the hot bath you’ll take or the TV show you’ll put on to wind down. Remind yourself that this situation is temporary and something better awaits.
  • Have a way out. When the urge to drink threatens to overwhelm you, it may be best to leave. Don’t go to an event like Thanksgiving dinner without a plan for leaving. Don’t count on someone else to drive you. Have your own exit strategy and leave when it becomes necessary, even if that means dropping everything and not saying goodbye.
  • Plan an alternative Thanksgiving dinner. What if you didn’t have to face the traditional Thanksgiving dinner at all? Your sobriety is what matters, and if the usual family dinner puts it in serious jeopardy, do something else. Plan a sober event at your own home. Or, simply don’t go. Stay home and stick with your regular routine.
  • Manage your mental health. Whether or not you have a diagnosed mental illness, depression, loneliness, stress, and anxiety can crop up this time of year. Be proactive about mental health, and you’ll be better able to resist the urge to drink at events like Thanksgiving. Increase your therapy sessions, go to support group meetings, limit stress, say no to events that will cause distress, and take plenty of time for self-care.

As you navigate this holiday season, prioritize and safeguard your sobriety. It’s important and not worth risking to spare someone’s feelings or to make others comfortable. Do what you need to do to resist the urge to drink during Thanksgiving dinner and other events.