How to Manage the Holidays as a Recovering Addict

Being home for the holidays can be especially difficult for recovering drug and alcohol addicts. The season is rife with social events and family gatherings where booze flows and triggers abound.


So what can former addicts do to stay sober over the holiday?

ATTN: talked to Dr. Suzette Glasner-Edwards, a clinical psychologist and principal investigator at UCLA's Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, to learn how recovering addicts can get through the holiday without giving into temptation. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ATTN: What is it about the holiday season that puts recovering addicts at risk of relapse?

Suzette Glasner-Edwards: There are a couple of different factors that make the holidays challenging for people who are in recovery. One of them is that alcohol is all around. For someone whose primary substance of choice isn't alcohol, it can still lead a person to feel less inhibited and make poorer decisions about using other substances as well. It's such a big part of the celebratory, social experience that there's just a lot of temptation. That would be one reason.

Another factor would be — for a lot people with addictions — there are relationships and even memories that come up around the holidays related to family experiences in the past that can be very triggering and upsetting, and so sometimes alcohol or other substances are an easy, go-to crutch reaction [enabling those in recovery] to suppress some of the uncomfortable feelings that might come up.

ATTN: Why is it important to incorporate pleasure into the recovery process?

SGE: We know that, for people who develop addictions, one of the defining features of an addiction is that the primary source of reward and pleasure becomes using or drinking, and so all of the other sources of pleasure that a person used to seek enjoyment from tend to fall by the wayside. That's what defines someone who has what we call a substance use disorder — they start to neglect other important things in their life that used to be rewarding and become very compulsive about their involvement with drugs or alcohol. A core aspect of recovery is rediscovering how to experience pleasure from other things.

If you're going to stop using drugs or alcohol, what's going to take its place and actually bring you feelings of joy and pleasure and reward in your life? There has to be something. A lot of the time, the things that used to be pleasurable prior to developing an addiction might not be the safest thing to do because they could be triggering. Maybe a certain relationship brought pleasure but that relationship has turned into a triggering experience... or maybe there were certain activities that a person did like going to concerts or things that they did when they were drinking or high, and so those things might become triggering or risky activities. There's a process of rediscovering what's rewarding and not triggering that helps people to be successful in recovery and maintain their success.

ATTN: What advice would you offer to a recovering addict over the holiday?

  1. SGE: Try to structure your time during the holidays. One of the things in treatment and recovery that we work on is figuring out what are the times of day or the situations that are risky — when is a person vulnerable to relapse or drink? Keeping busy with positive things that are not risky or triggering during the holiday season would be one bit of advice.
  2. A lot of people feel like they can't ask people around them not to drink around the holidays — like that's a burden. It depends on how close that relationship is, but if you're going to a gathering with your closest family and they're supportive of your recovery, it's okay to say, 'Could we do a holiday party where alcohol is not a big theme of it?'
  3. Have regular contact with somebody who is supportive of sobriety. In some cases, that could be a sponsor, but if that's not an active part of their recovery, they could enlist some people who are supportive of them, who they would be able to say in advance, 'Okay, if I was feeling vulnerable or triggered, could I call you?' Be aware of those resources.
  4. If there's a family member or somebody whose triggering for the person that makes them feel upset or increases the likelihood that they're going to want to drink or use, then try to keep contact with that person to some kind of reasonable minimum. They don't have to completely avoid them, or not attend a family function, but qualify that by saying you have another party to get to, or that you're just going to go for an hour, or something like that.

ATTN: Why might alcohol use be problematic for someone who suffers from an addiction that's not directly related to alcohol consumption?


SGE: All substances of abuse — alcohol and drugs included — operate at least partially through their effects on the brain's reward system, which is the system that has dopamine as a major component of it. Even if a person's drug of choice, per se, is not alcohol, once their reward system is primed, the brain remembers how good it feels to stimulate some of those neurochemicals. Even if it's not specific to alcohol in and of itself, a substance-induced high or pleasurable experience can trigger that memory, and the brain will crave more of that feeling.

Alcohol also impairs peoples' reasoning and judgment. Once a person has alcohol in their system and become less inhibited, that judgment can really go out the window and the whole weighing the pros and cons of it can fall to wayside and they can lose to impulsive decisions.