The holidays can be very stressful. Here are 4 tips to help keep your sobriety in check


Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the winter holiday season, bringing with it family gatherings, traditional foods, and indulgence. But a holiday centered around eating and drinking so much that people often joke about having to “unbutton their pants” can trigger serious overindulgence issues for people who struggle with alcohol abuse and addiction.

Throw the ongoing coronavirus pandemic on top of that, and it’s a challenging time to stay sober. From 2019 to 2020, a study by RAND Social and Economic Wellbeing found a 41% increase in binge drinking by women, defined as having four or more drinks in one sitting. Last June, the Centers for Disease Control found that 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with adverse mental health symptoms or substance abuse.

Most of the studies have something in common: increased drinking in response to stress and job loss.

“While we are still learning how the COVID pandemic is impacting alcohol use, it seems clear that some people are drinking more while others are drinking less. In many studies, increases in consumption during the pandemic were linked to increases in stress,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Director Dr. George Koob told USA TODAY.

The numbers are soaring in Louisville, too.

Priscilla McIntosh, executive director of local nonprofit treatment center The Morton Center, said the center’s intakes have increased 50% since 2019, plus a 62% increase in people calling seeking help with substance abuse.

Avoiding alcohol triggers during the holidays
Experts offer tips for avoiding triggers for drinking that often crop up during the holidays.

“So many individuals have been isolated for so long [during the pandemic] and are feeling their way to getting back out,” McIntosh said. “Sometimes we want to drain those emotions by drinking or using another substance.”

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, more people drink beyond their limits during the holidays than at any other time of the year. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that Thanksgiving is the deadliest holiday on the road, with more than 800 people dying of alcohol-related car accidents Thanksgiving week from 2012 to 2016.

However, McIntosh said she’s seen an equivalent rise in people seeking assistance around Thanksgiving, too. This year the center has received 25% more calls in November than last year, and the team expects the spike to continue through the new year.

People tend to drink more around the winter holidays simply because they are more likely to socialize or attend holiday parties. For some, the holidays bring instances of happiness and camaraderie. For others, the holidays can be a time of family conflict, strained wallets, loneliness, and seasonal affective disorder, also known as seasonal depression or winter blues.

Karyn Hascal, president of the Louisville-based recovery program The Healing Place, said the winter holidays can be triggering for those struggling with alcohol because of all the rituals surrounding alcohol, like toasts.

“There are a lot of social cues around the holidays that involve alcohol, like toasting in the New Year or having wine with dinner at a family holiday event,” she said. “These social cues can be triggers for people who are struggling with recovery. It’s not as easy as just saying no.”

Keep your sobriety in check during the holidays
The holidays are a time when people struggling with addiction are increasingly vulnerable to relapses, faced with increased access to alcohol and feelings of stress and sadness around the holidays. COVID-19 and its ripple effects have only added to that stress this year.

With stresses mounting, this year’s holiday season could make staying sober or controlling your alcohol intake difficult, especially if you haven’t seen family or attended gatherings in months or years due to the pandemic.

But experts say it’s possible to stay sober with thoughtful planning, understanding triggers that could lead to increased alcohol consumption, and tweaking traditions as needed.

Here are four things experts say you should keep in mind for your own and your guests’ safety and well-being as you plan holiday gatherings.

1. Plan ahead and have an exit plan

If you know you’re attending a holiday gathering where alcohol will be served, the number one thing you can do to help your future self is have a plan in place. Drive separately so if you’re uncomfortable in the situation, you can leave on your own terms. Plan a way out of situations or have a person you can call for help.

“You can [even] leave and go to a meeting,” McIntosh said. “Lean on those meetings. Know where they are and how to get to one. That planning process is key so if you’re in a moment, you know exactly what to do and you don’t have to think about it.”

McIntosh also recommends having a planned response to family members or friends asking why you’re not drinking. It can be as simple as “I’m not drinking” or “I’m on medication.”

“You don’t have to go into detail, and you need to know that’s okay,” McIntosh said. “Sometimes we see family once a year, sometimes more. Those family members may know. But you need to do what makes you feel comfortable.” Leah Kelly, manager of Global Responsibility at Brown-Forman,said it’s just as important to have an exit plan for holiday gatherings.Safety plans don’t just apply to those who struggle with addiction, either: anyone who drinks alcohol at an event should plan a safe way to get home. 

“If you can drink, you’re an adult, and you should make the best decision for yourself,” she said. “If you’re hosting, be proactive about asking how these folks are going to get home. Tell family members to carpool, prepare for them to spend the night or arrange safe rides home ahead of time. “

2. Have your support system on call 

If you have a sponsor or therapist, ask them if they think a holiday gathering would be high-risk for you. Reach out to your support system — those people can help you do everything from supporting you in the moment to coming up with an excuse to not attend.

McIntosh said the pressure to not disappoint family members during the holiday season is strong, but taking care of yourself is more important.

“It’s okay if you decide this year is not the year for you,” she said. “If you find you can’t do [holiday events] this year, Zoom with those you want to connect with. You can still have that one-on-one.”

Hascal of The Healing Place suggested removing yourself from a room or situation to make a phone call can work wonders, especially to “reinforce the positive message” of why you’re working on recovery. 

“Our clients develop coping mechanisms and resiliency, so when they leave here they have the tools…that help you deal with life,” she said. “Nowhere in this life can you go where there’s no one using alcohol. You’ll be exposed to it, so you have to learn to deal with life as it’s presented to you. It’s about getting sober in the context of your lives.”

3. Remember why you’re there

Whether you’re hosting an event or going to an event, remember why you’re there. The point is to have a memorable experience, enjoy yourself and reconnect with loved ones, Kelly said, not to drink alcohol,

“Lean into that experience and make sure you’re not questioning why someone is or is not drinking,” Kelly said. “If you see someone struggling, say something. If a family member is pressuring someone, check that and say ‘it doesn’t matter why this person isn’t drinking, I’m just happy they’re here.’”

A big part of Kelly’s job at Brown-Forman is promoting moderation in drinking year-round, not just during the holidays. That also applies to respecting peoples’ choices to drink or not, which could be anything from adjusting a relationship to alcohol to not wanting a cocktail in that exact moment.

Kelly also stressed that no one is entitled to anyone’s recovery story, and you shouldn’t push for details.

“They don’t have to talk about it if they don’t choose to,” she said. “And if they do, recognize that’s a gift. You then have an opportunity to support them in a way that feels included. If you’re hosting an event meant to be memorable and inclusive, everyone is going to enjoy themselves.”

4. It’s OK to tweak your holiday traditions

You can still have fun if you’re sober. The holidays have lots of celebrations and rituals surrounding alcohol, but you can still participate in a non-alcoholic way, Hascal with The Healing Place said. If everyone’s having mimosas, have an orange juice. It’s okay if yours doesn’t have alcohol in it.

holiday traditions

You can still have fun if you’re sober. The holidays have lots of celebrations and rituals surrounding alcohol, but you can still participate in a non-alcoholic way, Hascal with The Healing Place said. If everyone’s having mimosas, have an orange juice. It’s okay if yours doesn’t have alcohol in it.

“It’s helping people to understand you can still be a part of the celebration, just in a different way, and it doesn’t have to be a big deal,” she said.

A holiday gathering may be a high-risk situation for you, but you can still go as long as you’re careful. Recovery is about what you do when you encounter alcohol or situations in which you used to drink. It’s about “being able to maintain recovery in the context of your life,” Hascal said.

“Holidays are difficult for everybody,” she said. “Families have baggage and history. But it’s possible to rise above it all and try and have an enjoyable time. Know that you’re not the only person struggling through the holidays.”

If you need someone to discuss any of this with you, we are happy to chat – give us a call at (502) 451-1221.


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