The stress of the holiday…
Each year it feels like the holidays start earlier and earlier, the expectations are larger, and the pressure even more so. While the holidays are often filled with great moments, memories, and fun times, they are hard for so many. While it's a season of giving and togetherness, it can also trigger memories of lost loved ones, feelings of loneliness, or just high levels of stress. It can be an even more complicated time for those in recovery from substance or alcohol use disorders or a mental health condition. So as we make our way through the season, let's look at how we can best support loved ones in recovery.
What is Recovery?
SAMHSA's working definition of recovery defines recovery as a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential.
The Four Major Dimensions of Recovery:
Health: overcoming or managing one’s disease(s) or symptoms and making informed, healthy choices that support physical and emotional well-being.
Home: having a stable and safe place to live.
Purpose: conducting meaningful daily activities, such as a job, school volunteerism, family caretaking, or creative endeavors, and the independence, income, and resources to participate in society.
Community: having relationships and social networks that provide support, friendship, love, and hope.
Why Are the Holidays So Challenging for People in Recovery?
For the 21 million Americans in recovery, the holidays may be a particularly challenging time to navigate. We’ve all experienced the normal stress of the holidays – parties, cooking, shopping, hosting, and traveling. For those in recovery, additional difficulties come with the holidays.
Social gatherings with alcohol or other substances can be hard. From family gatherings to work holiday parties, it seems like alcohol is everywhere this time of year. This is particularly difficult if the person is in the earlier stages of their recovery when they are likely still learning to socialize in new ways without substances of any kind.
Holidays bring an increased amount of family time. That can be complicated for anyone, but family relationships often bring up difficult memories and emotions for those in recovery. Feelings of guilt or shame about past actions or struggles are widespread. Those emotions can be triggering and challenging when trying to maintain recovery.
Change in Routine. If travel is involved, routines are thrown off, which might make it hard to get to recovery meetings or therapy appointments. Even if a person isn’t traveling, they may not be exercising, eating, or sleeping as they normally would due to all of the festivities.
All of these factors can significantly trigger an array of responses such as anxiety or panic attacks, depression, boredom, isolation, loneliness (if they withdraw from others), and overall, a much higher level of stress.
How You Can Support a Loved One
Reach Out - Don’t let your loved one go through the holiday season alone. Reach out, try to spend time with them, or stay in touch through phone calls or texting if they aren't up for leaving the house.
Understand Their Challenges - Try to understand what they are going through and how this season may affect them. Ask them about how they are feeling and what they are finding challenging.
Know Their Triggers - Every person’s recovery journey is different and so are their triggers. Whether it’s being around alcohol, loneliness from the loss of a loved one or broken relationships, financial difficulties, or painful family memories and dynamics. Learn what’s hard for them so you can help them navigate it.
Lock Up Your Medications - It’s always a good practice to keep your medications locked, but when you have gatherings with many people in your home, it’s even more important. Reducing access prevents anyone from misusing medication and reduces the temptation for those in recovery. Visit drugfreect.org for additional information on safe storage and disposal.
Suggest Activities That Support Recovery - Once you know how they are feeling and their triggers, try suggesting holiday activities they might enjoy that would put them at ease. If they are sober, find something fun that doesn't involve alcohol, whether outdoor activities like sledding, caroling, or going to a holiday show. If being around many people is hard for them and they struggle with social anxiety, suggest something one-on-one or with a very small group of people with whom they are comfortable.
Manage Your Expectations - Understand this season could be very hard for a person in recovery. They may have some setbacks. They may plan to join you but find they can't get out of bed or constantly run late because it's hard to push themselves to go. They could get upset or sad or may not seem all that engaged. The best thing you can offer them is total acceptance.
Reduce Holiday Pressures - If you know your loved one may be financially struggling, suggest a Secret Santa or skip the presents altogether. Let them know it's ok to honor where they are at. If they aren't feeling social, it's ok to not be at every event, or if they just aren't very talkative, that's ok too.
Encourage Them To Get Extra Support - Encourage them to reach out for additional support, either through their therapist, group therapy, or a recovery meeting. If they are in substance recovery, encourage them to attend regular meetings or contact their sponsor if they have one. If leaving the house is hard for them right now, provide them with hotlines and warmlines, so they have 24/7 support. While it's nice to have family to talk to, sometimes it can be more comforting to talk with someone who knows specifically what you are going through. Some people can find it easier to open up to someone with whom they don't have a personal history.
Keep The Peace - Sometimes, it can be tense when family comes together. When holiday stress is added, gatherings can be ripe for arguments. Avoid any triggering topics and bringing up difficult things from the past. Consider talking with the rest of the family ahead of time and ask them to be mindful in order to keep the atmosphere warm and positive.
Ask Your Loved One What They Need - Above all else, ask them directly how you can best support them and what they need. Listen openly without judgment and try your best to be supportive and honor their needs and concerns. Let them know you love them and you want to support them in whatever way feels best to them.
Here are some additional tips for hosting a holiday gathering that includes guests in recovery.
Find A Support Group
There are many support groups that a person in recovery can attend. No matter where you are, you can find an available support group, even on Christmas Day or another holiday. Download our resource and support group guides for additional options.
These groups usually feature:
guidance and encouragement
skills for relapse prevention
counselors, if attending a licensed program
educational classes or lectures
Examples of support groups you might find include:
Here are a few resources for loved ones of those in recovery:
Al-Anon Family Groups, Al-Anon Electronic Meetings: Find a virtual Al-Anon meeting to get support if you have a loved one in recovery.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Stigma Reduction: Learn about the effects of addiction, recovery options, and relapse prevention.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), NAMI Family Support Group: This is a peer-led support group for adults with loved ones who have a mental health condition.
Partnership to End Addiction, Creating a Plan: This resource is for parents of teens or young adults needing help with substance use.
SMART Recovery, SMART Recovery Family & Friends: This is a science-based support group for those with loved ones in addiction recovery.
University of Rochester Medical Center, Helping a Friend with an Addiction: Find information about the symptoms of addiction and how to support friends with addiction.
The following are resources for those in recovery during the holidays:
Harvard Health Publishing, Navigating the holidays in recovery: This resource provides information about recovery during winter holidays and how to plan for triggers.
Mental Health America (MHA), How To Navigate Alcohol Addiction Recovery Over The Holidays: Helpful strategies for those recovering from drug addiction during the holidays.
MHA, I’m Looking For Mental Health Help For Myself: What to do if you’re in crisis or need support for substance use and mental illness.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call (800) 273-8255 for free and confidential support in times of distress and crisis resources.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Treatment Services Locator: Find peer support, outpatient programs, and relapse prevention near you.
Veterans Crisis Line: Veterans can call this hotline to speak to responders with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) about addiction or mental health crises.
Mental Health Apps and Help Lines
Breathe2Relax: how to perform and use diaphragmatic breathing techniques for stress control.
Covid Coach: a free tool to support self-care and stay healthy during a pandemic and beyond, with tips to stay connected and navigate parenting, caregiving, and working from home.
Mindfulness Coach: a free tool with an activity log and daily mood rating features to help users learn to use mindfulness to cope with unpleasant thoughts and emotions.
Podcasts and Videos
Social Media and the Holidays: Mental Health Gateway Podcast: how to avoid social media, which can add stress during the holidays.
Survive the Holidays and Preserve Your Mental Health, Not Crazy Podcast: how to decide if not going to a party is the best option.
Tips for Coping with Bipolar Disorder During the Holidays, HealthyPlace Mental Health YouTube channel: the importance of self-care, sticking to a budget, and avoiding social media.
Warmlines, Hotlines, and Text Lines
Crisis Text Line: text “HOME” to 741741 to access Mental Health America’s 24/7 free text line and connect with trained crisis counselors.
HERO Warm Line for First Responders: dial 844-833-4376 from 8 a.m. to midnight ET daily to speak with fellow first responders trained to offer peer support and an empathetic ear.
988 - National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: dial 800-273-8255 anytime to receive free and confidential support or prevention and crisis resources.
211: 2-1-1 is a free, confidential information and referral service that connects people to essential health and human services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, online and over the phone.