A Framework for Staying Sober Through the Holidays in Early Recovery

Cutting wrapping paper.

A Framework for Staying Sober Through the Holidays in Early Recovery

For individuals in early recovery, staying sober can be a challenging task at any time of the year. However, the holiday season can bring about additional stressors and pressures that can make staying sober seem even more daunting. For some, this may be the first holiday season in sobriety. The thought of attending additional social commitments and family gatherings may bring about feelings of distress and overwhelm. However, individuals in recovery can benefit from realizing that they still deserve to feel holly and jolly this season, regardless of their decision to remain sober. By utilizing a healthy framework for staying sober, individuals can learn to enjoy the holidays while keeping their recovery as the highest priority in their life.

Understanding Additional Triggers During the Holidays

The holiday season is known to bring about various emotional triggers pertaining to the areas of substance abuse and trauma. While the holidays can increase the availability of substances and bring about stressful social commitments, several other factors can make this time of the year particularly challenging for individuals in recovery. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) explains “[T]he holiday season is fraught with triggers such as songs, scents, and rituals. Then there is pressure to conform to particular social and familial expectations, increased presence of alcohol, and more interactions with family and friends.” While the holidays can be triggering to anyone, they can be especially triggering for someone working to establish their sobriety.

Other examples of holiday triggers for individuals in early recovery may include:

  • Stressful family dynamics
  • Holiday traditions surrounding substance use
  • Busy schedules
  • Traveling
  • Grief triggered by remembering past loved ones
  • Reminiscing about past holidays and other memories
  • Being asked about recovery progress

Protecting Sobriety With a Relapse Prevention Plan

For individuals in recovery, it is not enough to enter the holiday season without having any preparations in place for staying sober. In other words, it is vital for individuals to create a framework that identifies guidelines and expectations that they can use to protect their sobriety. Another name for this framework is a relapse prevention plan. 

While it is likely that most people who have been in recovery for some time have a relapse prevention plan, those in early recovery likely do not. This is because relapse prevention plans are typically created throughout treatment. Individuals who are new to sobriety and recovery can ask their care team to work with them to create an effective relapse prevention plan for this holiday season. To be effective, these plans must be individualized and unique, addressing personal needs and goals for recovery. For getting started, consider the following factors to add to your relapse prevention plan:

Identifying and Navigating Relapse Triggers

One of the most valuable sections of a relapse prevention plan requires an individual to identify potential triggers. As mentioned previously, the holidays can surface unique triggers for individuals in early recovery. While individuals cannot possibly prepare for every trigger they will encounter throughout the holidays, it can help to reflect and identify potential triggers ahead of time. 

A trigger can be visual, such as watching someone drink alcohol. Triggers can also be completely independent of substance use, such as experiencing relational conflict with a partner. However, one thing that all triggers have in common is that they trigger emotional distress, which can lead to an emotional relapse. 

After individuals spend some time identifying potential relapse triggers, they must also identify effective ways to manage those triggers. Successful coping mechanisms are different for everyone as well as different for each trigger. For example, some individuals may not feel equipped to be in environments with substance use. In this case, an effective solution would be to avoid such environments during the holidays. If another trigger is family conflict, then if and when conflict arises, an individual can rely on mindfulness techniques to work through it.

Establishing Healthy Boundaries During the Holidays 

Healthy boundaries are essential for protecting an individual’s recovery, especially during the holidays. Boundaries are often created in an attempt to manage relapse triggers. For instance, an individual in early recovery may request that their family refrains from alcohol or other substance use during holiday gatherings. If their family does not respect that boundary, then the individual in recovery should feel comfortable not attending gatherings. Likewise, learning how to say “no” is crucial for those working to sustain their sobriety throughout the holidays. 

Engaging With Continuing Treatment Resources

Another aspect of an effective relapse prevention plan for the holidays acknowledges an individual’s engagement in continuing treatment. Individuals in early recovery are likely involved with an intensive treatment program. However, some facilities may offer reduced sessions or reduced time spent at the facility throughout the holiday season. Fortunately, many recovery programs know that temptations only get stronger during the holidays. This is why most facilities offer support group meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, to help keep one another accountable for their sobriety. 

Engagement with treatment resources is crucial for preventing relapse throughout the holidays. If an individual is unable to attend meetings regularly, consider attending virtual support meetings or keeping regular contact with a mentor.

Addressing Sober Networking Opportunities

Lastly, individuals in recovery must address sober networking opportunities to protect their sobriety throughout the holidays. In addition to support groups, there are likely a plethora of sober holiday events and gatherings taking place in communities across the United States. Consider volunteering or planning and hosting a sober gathering. Social networking during treatment and recovery is valuable because social support helps to prevent relapse. Additionally, social support can help individuals feel less alone in their sobriety journey, especially for those without family support.