Strategies for Maintaining Sobriety Amid Holiday Stress and Family Triggers

The holiday season tends to increase stress, even in people who enjoy this time of year. Family is often a significant source of stress. For people in recovery from addiction, the combination of family and holiday stress can easily lead to a relapse. Recognizing how family can be triggering is the first step to not letting it get the best of you. Use practical tips to set yourself up for a successful and sober holiday even when facing stressful family events.

The holidays can be a challenging time for sobriety for several reasons. Parties and celebrations typically overflow with alcohol. The holidays also challenge mental health with pressure, expectations, and depression, which can make it more difficult to resist drinking.

For many people in recovery, family triggers come into play at this time of year. Many people spend more time with family during the holidays, and that can raise old issues. Recognize your particular family-related triggers so you can cope better and stay sober this year.

Why Is Family So Triggering?

What family does and says to you or around you is so much more intense than anything a stranger, acquaintance, or even friend could do or say. A stranger’s comment may be problematic, but your response is much more intense when a family member says the same thing. Why is this?

Family can push your buttons like no one else because they were around when you developed those triggers. They had a hand in creating them. Being around family takes you back to childhood. This is especially true if the dynamics between you and certain people never changed or evolved as you became an adult.

For instance, your mother makes a fairly benign comment about your lack of a partner or difficulty maintaining a long-term relationship. This may take you back to a time when you felt competitive with a sibling for your parents’ attention or admiration. Now, compared to your married sibling, you feel irrationally inadequate, even if you’re happy with your relationship status.

We tend to regress around family, and this stirs up intense emotions. Your behaviors are also likely to regress. Where you would respond rationally to someone else, you storm off or yell. If you are in recovery, the urge to drink is likely to be powerful.

The Holidays Exacerbate Family Triggers

The obvious reason that this season makes family triggering so much worse is simply time and frequency. You’re likely to spend more time with family members now than throughout the rest of the year. There may even be some people you only ever see this time of year.

It’s not just time spent with family, however. Other factors contribute to making family situations triggering. Certain situations and emotions unique to or more potent during the season heighten the impact of usual triggers:

  • Feeling like you’re missing out by not feeling joyful or embracing the holiday spirit
  • Financial stress associated with gift buying and other holiday expenses
  • Pressure to participate in more events that you feel comfortable attending, especially if you struggle with social anxiety
  • Worsening symptoms of existing mental health issues, like depression
  • Social isolation or loneliness
  • Grieving and missing a lost loved one
  • Short days and inadequate sunlight

For some people, the holidays are indeed a joyful time, but it is a difficult period for others. Mental health often dips, it becomes more difficult to make healthy lifestyle choices, isolation is common, and if you’re in recovery, temptations are all around. All of these come together to make family triggers more triggering than usual.

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Practical Tips for Staying Sober Around Family

The first step in coping with family triggers to avoid drinking is recognizing them. Understanding why family is such a powerful trigger, especially this time of year, you can learn to cope without taking a drink.

Take some time to reflect on your childhood and family relationships. Pinpoint the specific interactions, comments, and other factors that trigger you. Think about how they make you feel and how that may lead to drinking. This reflection in advance of holiday events will help you go into them with more protection from triggers. It may not be enough, so try these tips as you face those triggers:

  1. Start managing stress now. Stress is a trigger for most people in recovery. The added stress of the holidays works against your sobriety. The more you can do to manage it leading up to and during the season, the stronger you will be in your resolve to stay sober. Use what works for you: extra therapy sessions, support groups, yoga and exercise, meditation, journaling.
  2. Stay on top of recovery. Even if you felt strong in your recovery leading up to the holidays, be vigilant. Fortify your recovery for a difficult time, just as you would batten down the hatches before a storm. You may be strong, but external forces may be stronger. Keep up with therapy, add more sessions, go to support group meetings, and stay in touch with sober friends.
  3. Prepare your responses. Close family may know you’re not drinking, but if you are around extended family, expect to get a lot of comments and questions. Some people will inevitably be insensitive, so prepare with answers about your drinking. It doesn’t have to be the truth; it only needs to be effective in getting them to back down. While you’re at it, prepare answers to non-drinking questions that still trigger, like comments about your work, weight, or relationship status.
  4. Avoid other triggers. With family and holiday triggers all around, avoid the pitfall of daily triggers. The acronym H.A.L.T. summarizes common triggers anyone in recovery should avoid: hunger, anger, loneliness, and tiredness. When facing difficult situations, stay well-fed on healthy foods, connect with supportive friends, get plenty of sleep, and manage angry impulses and other strong emotions.
  5. Take regular breaks. When the urge to drink threatens to overwhelm during a family or holiday event, step outside and take a breather. A quick time-out may be all you need to re-focus. Use a breathing exercise or call a friend to check in for a minute.
  6. Bring your own drinks. When facing a problematic event, do everything you can to set yourself up for success. Bringing your favorite non-alcoholic beverage is a simple way to ensure you always have something in hand. No one will push a drink on you if you have a full glass. Don’t get stuck with nothing to sip on.
  7. Volunteer to help with the event. Keeping busy can help you resist urges to drink. It’s when you’re standing around bored or talking to that difficult family member when you’ll most feel tempted. Offer to help in the kitchen, to keep the kids occupied, or to walk the dog to keep busy and distracted.
  8. Prepare healthy rewards. Having something to look forward to can be a powerful motivator. Plan healthy and enjoyable rewards for making it through an event without drinking. Ideas for rewards include a pair of shoes you’ve had your eye on, your favorite dinner, a movie, or a few hours with a new book you really want to read.
  9. Have an exit strategy. It’s brave to face a family holiday gathering when you know it could trigger your drinking. Have a plan to get out if necessary. Don’t rely on someone else to drive you, for instance. Have your own transportation and be ready with an excuse you have to leave.
  10. Avoid as needed. Your sobriety and wellness are more important than the expectations of family members. If you feel you need to avoid certain people or events, don’t feel guilty about it. For example, there may be one party that you know will have heavy drinking. Decline the party. You can explain why or not. You don’t owe anyone explanations for your choices.


The simple fact is that the holidays are not easy for anyone in recovery, especially when family is a source of triggers. Accept this fact and take practical steps to manage triggers and avoid relapse. If you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out for professional support. Residential treatment for alcoholism during the holidays can help you stay sober and strengthen your sobriety against future challenges.