The Importance of Staying Stress-Free for Those in Recovery
The month of December can be difficult for those in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse. With the season full of holiday festivities and parties, it can be difficult to remain stress-free and sober. Although traditions may vary based on family, culture, or religion, one thing is usually common between them: the stress that comes with meeting expectations.
At a time of the year that is portrayed as one of joy, smiles, and family bonding, the experience can also be stressful. For many others, it can also be anxiety-provoking and possibly even dangerous for individuals in recovery.
What Does the Research Say About Stress and Addiction?
Before heading into this tumultuous time, each person must make their plans for themselves and strategize on how to keep stress levels low. If you’re a loved one of someone in recovery, it’s equally important to map out how to support them.
The conclusions of recent studies have shown that higher stress levels contribute to higher risks of substance abuse as well as relapse. This can go for opium use, alcohol abuse, and other harmful substances that can turn into full-fledged addiction if not addressed immediately.
For those already in recovery, there are tools and supports available to you, including group meetings and mentors available. But ultimately, being strong in your recovery program will make all of the difference
Tips for De-stressing for Sobriety’s Sake
- Manage Your Expectations: Often times, holidays can be laden with unrealistic expectations regarding closeness, relaxation, and joy. Identifying and evaluating those expectations, therefore, is extremely important. So while our holiday may not match the fantasy of a Hallmark movie, we have our own standard of realistic expectation. This might look like simply acknowledging that stress about the holidays is normal and that it does not make you a failure. If we can reorient our expectations so that they don’t become the predominant stressor, we can avoid relapse triggers in a significant way.
- Remembering That We’re All Growing: Remind yourself that what you decide to do this year can be changed next year. For example, many individuals facing their first sober holiday are not ready for the big family events. Although many family members are well-meaning in their questions and comments, you may need time to build up the strength for those conversations. Especially in situations where holiday traditions include alcohol or other substances, a person in recovery is faced with a temptation they are not necessarily ready to handle. It is more than okay to decline the invitation this year and let supportive family know where you stand. You might be a very different situation next year!
- Be Okay With Reevaluating Family Traditions: Much of holiday stress can come from a feeling of being “stuck.” Old traditions and a lack of flexibility are not helpful for those trying to reinvent themselves in recovery. Instead, feel free to create new traditions that put an emphasis on recovery and togetherness, and being mindful that some traditions may not be conducive to maintaining sobriety early on in recovery. It is perfectly acceptable to find alternatives to prior activities that may now seem unhealthy or a risk for relapse.
Tips for Rebuilding a New Way of Holiday Living
- Make Sure to Have a Plan: Plans help us stay firm in our values and boundaries, even when it’s hard. One of the keys is to not delay in communicating your plan. Be assertive in asking if you can spend time with family who are visiting out of town on another day, rather than the actual holiday. This way, the focus will be on the visit and not on the “party.” It may also help to arrive early to a dinner and leave early before things become too raucous. If you have a sober support or buddy, bring them along if you’re feeling uncertain.
- Avoid Excessive Free Time: In the early stages of recovery, unstructured time can be potentially dangerous. Be mindful of gaps in your schedule since it can be hard to hold ourselves accountable in longer periods of downtime. Idle time can lead to increased relapse triggers such as boredom, decrease in utilizing recovery supports, and coping strategies. Free time can be even more dangerous if it’s paired with increases in anxiety, racing thoughts, and stress.
- Be Honest: Taking responsibility and being honest about your recovery process is a healthy habit to build. With this responsibility comes the need to have honest and straightforward communication. This also means being honest with yourself about where you’re at and what you need. Not everyone is going to trust you immediately just because you have made a few changes. Trust takes time to rebuild. Understanding this will help allow for more realistic expectations of others and less disappointments.
- Increase Your Support Network: It can be very helpful during the holidays to get more involved in your support systems. This may look like attending more meetings, volunteering to help at meetings, getting involved with speaking engagements, increasing phone contacts, attending outpatient treatments, and working with your counselor and/or sponsor.
- Focus on Self-Care: A primary focus of recovery is to utilize coping strategies and increase our personal self-care. Meditation, deep breathing, journaling, and mindfulness practices are an important part of this component of recovery. The holidays may bring a sense of responsibility or pressure to compensate for past mistakes, but this does not mean that overspending on gifts or holiday expenses is the way to do it. Having a self-care practice includes care for your emotional, physical, financial, and relational well-being.
Staying sober and minimizing stress during the holidays go hand in hand. With the right tools, planning, and support system, you can make it through a potentially stressful time with a sense of contentment and peace. Recovery means taking things one step at a time.