Staying Sober and on the Path to Recovery During the Holidays

Baylor substance use disorder expert provides ideas on how to abstain from substance and alcohol use during the stress of the holidays

December 19, 2023
Staying Sober During the Holidays

(Image credit: Nadiia Borodai/Getty Images)

Contact: Shelby Cefaratti-Bertin, Baylor University Media & Public Relations, 254-327-8012
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WACO, Texas (Dec. 19, 2023) – The holidays can be a joyous time full of celebrations and they also can be a time of intense stress. Individuals with substance and alcohol use disorders can experience additional stress during the holidays, which can interfere with their recovery, and they may need additional support to abstain from substance use. What can people in recovery do to both abstain and enjoy the holidays? And what can loved ones do to support them?

“Holidays can be difficult for anyone, but those with substance use and mental health disorders may have a more difficult time coping with those difficulties,” said Baylor University substance use disorder treatment expert Sara Dolan, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience.

Sara Dolan, Ph.D.
Sara Dolan, Ph.D.

“The holidays can be – on one hand – a time rife with loneliness, and on the other hand, a time where family conflict might be more present,” Dolan said. “Both of these situations are hard for many of us to cope with, but we may want to be more sensitive to those who struggle more with these situations.”

Dolan is a nationally known researcher on how neuropsychological dysfunction, including problems with memory and executive functions, affects how people cope with alcohol and substance use disorders and how these issues affect the treatment process and outcome. Dolan offers the following suggestions for individuals in recovery to help them get through the holidays and how family and friends can offer support.

Stay active in recovery

If the individual already has a recovery plan in place such as a 12-step program or Celebrate Recovery, make sure to continue attending meetings and appointments during the holiday season.

“There are numerous virtual and in-person resources for people who are struggling, including mutual aid support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Smart Recovery,” Dolan said. “People can also call the SAMHSA national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.”

Even when traveling, it is a good idea to know local meeting schedules, use virtual resources and consider attending extra meetings to stay on top of your recovery.

Have a coping plan

“It is important for people to have a solid coping plan before they go into potentially distressing situations,” Dolan said.

Are there places or events to just stay away from? Dolan said it is “okay to keep yourself safe by leaving or even avoiding places that may be unsafe.”

By having a plan to handle stressors ahead of time, you can manage it better in the moment. Preparation is key to feeling safe and enjoying the holidays. 

Avoid triggers and stressors

Understanding personal triggers, which can be different for different people, can help us avoid them ahead of time.

“For some people, it’s family conflict, for some, it’s loneliness, and for some it’s feelings of anxiety or depression,” Dolan said. “It’s important to know your own stress points before you go into situations that may trigger them.”

Once you know what leads to urges to use alcohol or other substances, you can determine how to counteract those circumstances or avoid them if necessary.

Reach out for support

Reach out to family and friends who will most likely offer positive support. Letting your loved one know what you need – and how to support you in your recovery – can help you abstain from substance use during stressful situations. In fact, Dolan said you may even want to let them know ahead of time that you may need extra support.

How to support someone with a substance use disorder

Be as open, direct and caring as you can be. Dolan suggests talking to your loved one directly about what may – or may not be helpful – during the holidays.

“Some people in recovery may feel more comfortable in alcohol-free environments,” she said, “but some may not want their loved ones altering their behavior.

“Ask – don’t assume – and let your loved one tell you what might work best for them,” Dolan added. 

Using these suggestions can help both individuals with substance and alcohol use disorders and their families have a healthy and happy holiday season.


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