The holidays are meant to be a joyous time where family, friends and coworkers come together to exchange gifts, celebrate, feast, and party. But these festivities can be problematic for the millions of Americans who struggle with addiction. For them, it might even be the worst time of the year. During the holidays people struggling with addiction are more likely to relapse, overdose, or commit suicide.
Why are the holidays so hard for people struggling with addiction, and what can people do to help themselves during this high stress season?
First, it’s helpful to understand what an addiction is. Bev Mueller, Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and Master Certified Addiction Professional (MCAP), explains, “Addiction is like a personality disorder because it involves obsessing on an outside object, such as a drugs or alcohol. When you wrap your life around a drug or obsess on getting high, that’s all you think about, and even if you do things like maintaining a job, you maintain it just so you have money for your drug.”
So again, what is it about the holidays that make it so hard for people struggling with addiction?
Drinking, partying, eating, and spending money are all done in excess during the holidays. These indulgent behaviors are encouraged and justified by the holiday season, and are practiced by almost everyone. This kind of accepted yet destructive behavior occurring all around can send a recovering addict into a tailspin of triggers and relapse. Addicts in active addiction can be triggered further into the addiction and cause greater turmoil on themselves and others, usually to guilt and loss.
Mueller explains that the overflow of tempting substances, combined with the emotional stress of the holidays, is what often pushes an addict over the edge. “The holidays represent a joyful time and something that is so idealistic to people who may have never actually experienced a very happy holiday, or haven’t in a very long time, or have [trauma] about that time of year. It brings up childhood memories, especially for people who were raised in a dysfunctional home. Even happy child hood memories can cause triggering reactions,” Mueller explains.
There are many reasons the holidays can be stressful:
· Financial stress
· Pressure for things to be perfect
· Rigid expectations from family members
· Unresolved anger/pain toward family members
· Past fights/arguments/trauma recurring
· Fear of relapse
· Hiding or downplaying an addiction
· Family confrontation about an addiction
In the end, simply seeing family members is one of the most common and inflammatory triggers for someone struggling with an addiction.
What can be done to prepare for the holidays?
1) Consider Avoiding
Realize that avoidance is sometimes your best option. If you want to avoid temptation, it’s best to steer clear of a tempting situation. Don’t go to that party where you know drugs will be used, or go home from a work party before the alcohol is brought out.
Avoidance is always an option. Mueller says, “It’s perfectly okay to say ‘I love you guys, but I have to go.’ It’s not rude, it might feel rude, but the most important responsibility we have is to keep ourselves safe.”
However, Mueller acknowledges that being isolated during the holidays can be just as damaging as being surrounded by triggers. You have to know yourself, examine the past, and come up with a plan that works for you.
2) Recognize your triggers and make a plan
Recognize your triggers by considering past holidays, relapses or situations that upset you. Then plan for what you can do or say to make the situation easier on yourself.
Have a polite but firm excuse to get out of uncomfortable situations; for example, you are meant to call your boss or friend at that moment, or you have a bad cold and can’t share that cigarette, joint, drink or dessert.
If you are worried about family members grilling you about your life or addiction, practice how you want to respond to questions and how to separate yourself before it starts escalating.
A Psychology Today article titled, “Addiction during the holidays: Recovered or not, it’s important to be prepared,” by Adi Jaffe Ph.D., recommends practicing for these scenarios, maybe with a close friend or partner.
“If your family is overly focused on achievement or likes to bring up stories from the past that are triggering or shameful, rehearse your reactions to them. If you have a friend or significant someone who can help, do a little role-play trying out different answers and see how they feel as you actually say them out loud… being prepared can go a long way towards taming the body and brain’s natural stress responses,” Jaffe writes.
3) Have a support system
Support is crucial for anyone who struggles with addiction. Bev Mueller, who is a therapist at Family & Child Development, explains that moral support is essential for recovery. An addict needs a sense of community, this can come from a sponsor, a therapist, or healthy friends. Mueller also suggests bringing a supportive friend to the holiday.
If your family is aware of your addiction, ask for their support during the holiday. Communicate your triggers to them in a non-accusatory way; they might not even be aware of some of the things they do that cause you stress.
4) Manage your expectations
You can’t face the holiday assuming it’s going to be extremely unpleasant, or thinking it needs to be perfect. We create unnecessary tension when we build things up in our minds, and often reality does not reflect our fears.
“People are more likely to relapse during the holiday because of the expectation that it’s going to suck… There’s a lot of distorted thinking. Things should be this way. That shouldn’t have happened. Distorted thinking gets more compounded during the season because you look around, and people look happier,” says Mueller.
Mueller says it’s important to manage our expectations, and try to be realistic. Again, having an someone who is objective and supportive can help you stay realistic.
If you are struggling with addiction, Mueller encourages seeing a counselor, therapist, or finding a support group. “You cannot do it yourself, it is an impossible task. At the same time, nobody can do it for you.”
If you are struggling with addiction or find that you need extra support during the holidays, please reach out to us at Family & Child Development.