Stress runs rampant between Thanksgiving and Christmas, making it an especially difficult period of time for those struggling with mental health and substance use issues.
Harvard describes holiday stress as “an acute reaction to an immediate threat” where “the brain’s prefrontal cortex goes into overdrive.” This basically means that neuroscience backs up the reality of holiday stress.
Family members are a source of a lot of our pain, and the holidays are all about family.
Many of us who suffer from mental health and substance issues experienced “difficult” childhoods, at best. Painful memories of these dynamics and intense emotional experiences are dredged up during the holidays. Whether it was divorce, verbal/physical/sexual abuse or neglect.
Parental oversights, like overbearing or highly critical parents, a parent who wasn’t attuned to our needs or failed to show us the love and affection that we require as children, or absent parents can also be a source of pain during the holiday season.
If this is true, it’s okay to keep family visits time-limited.
There’s a saying: “Of course our families push our buttons, they installed them.”
No one is suggesting that we completely avoid our families, except in the most dire cases. But no one said that we have to spend ALL DAY with them either.
It’s easy to say, “I would love to come over after or before the meal, because I have another obligation to join ‘X’ for a get together at ‘X’ o’clock,” perhaps at the homeless shelter (or in bed with Netflix – who cares, whatever it takes to get out of there).
The Bermuda Triangle of Holidays
We say this is the “Bermuda Triangle” of holidays for addicted people, between Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve – the latter being a holiday that seems like it was especially designed for those who suffer from substance use disorder (maybe to help cope with the prior two) – the proverbial icing on the cake.
Navigating the “Bermuda Triangle” of holidays is a very tricky exercise, but one we can get through together, if we use some basic strategies/coping mechanisms.
Always remember the true purpose of the holidays. We mustn’t forget that, with Thanksgiving, it’s about gratitude, and with Christmas, it’s about the kids. Everything else is just noise designed to make us spend money.
As challenging as it may seem at first, it’s possible to still enjoy the holidays being sober.
Having fun while sober comes naturally, it’s how we did it as children. It’s simply a matter of re-learning how to have fun without drugs or alcohol. Learn to fill the void with things that are enjoyable.
At first, this can seem overwhelming or even boring because so many social activities revolve around alcohol in our society. In the beginning, it’s perfectly normal to long to go back to our old ways. Avoid this temptation at all costs.
Being sober means it’s possible to adventure and explore what life has to offer. Get creative and explore some new and interesting activities.
Here are 7 Meaningful Ways Anyone Can Enjoy Sober Holidays
1. Experience New Holiday Activities
The holiday season is full of fun activities. You can go skiing, ice skating, go have dinner with friends, volunteer at a soup kitchen or decorate your home.
Think of new activities that you have never tried before, but always want to do during the holiday season. That way, being sober becomes more enjoyable, as you try out new things when you’d normally get carried away with the substance storm that can often happen around the holiday season.
Here are ideas to do with family and friends over the holidays that don’t require alcohol:
- Go see a production of “The Nutcracker”
- Volunteer at a homeless shelter that feeds folks for Thanksgiving
- Go Christmas caroling or grab some hot chocolate and drive through the neighborhood with the best Christmas lights
- Start or join a gift drive on Facebook to benefit local underprivileged kids, to make sure everyone gets presents this year
- See a movie on Christmas Day, an awesome American tradition
- Stay home on New Year’s Eve – beat the crowds, save a couple of hundred dollars, get to bed early and wake up the next day feeling like a million bucks
- Do a 90-day Yoga challenge, starting out your new year with a head-start (and justify a few extra treats – hey, if it means staying sober, don’t be afraid to eat a whole cake if necessary. Whatever it takes sometimes.)
- Go to a midnight mass at church or a celebration of whatever religious denomination one might be a part of
Being sober can make life more productive because you won’t have to experience any hangovers, and you’ll be able to enjoy your activities and remember them.
2. Learn to Say “No”
If you’re invited to an event that you know will involve drugs or alcohol, learn to simply say “no.” People will respect your choice if you are definitive.
When offered alcohol, here are some polite responses that work well:
- “No. Thank you, though”
- “I don’t drink these days. I am allergic to alcohol and narcotics. I break out in handcuffs” (Robert Downey Jr.’s favorite reply)
- “I’m allergic to alcohol”
- “It was becoming a problem for me, and so I’m just not drinking right now”
- “I don’t like alcohol”
As long as we’re at peace with our decision not to drink or use, it’s really no one else’s business, and if someone is bothered by you not drinking, that’s really their problem, and not yours.
Keep in mind, you don’t need to go to every event you are invited to and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Going to social events is supposed to be fun, so if you think the event might trigger a relapse, learn to politely say “no thanks.”
Remember, it’s your life and you get to pick and choose the events that best align with your comfort zone and personal happiness. Don’t ever feel guilty and never dwell on hurting another person’s feelings when you look out for yourself first. This is one of the hardest parts of self care, and one of the most important.
If you find yourself in a situation where everyone is drinking or taking drugs, you can be the inspiration for others, showing them that it is possible to be sober and have fun.
Sometimes it’s too difficult to be around people who are using drugs or alcohol, and it’s okay to leave. After leaving, recognize that you found the strength to remove yourself from a place where you weren’t comfortable, and commend yourself for staying true to your sobriety.
Your real friends will love you and respect you for your decision. if they don’t, find yourself a new crowd who enjoys activities without drinking or taking drugs.
3. Be of Service to Others
There are many ways that you can serve others this holiday season. As we’ve touched on already, you could volunteer at any of the following places:
- Soup kitchens
- Homeless shelters
- Children’s hospital
- Charities that need help around the holidays
The simple activity of shifting your focus from yourself to helping others can be a rewarding activity.
Because you’re sober you can offer to drive friends or family to social occasions.
You could also offer to babysit if you want to avoid an alcohol-fueled event. It has been scientifically proven that when you serve others you feel happier.
If you’re a parent with children, involve the kids and teach them at a young age about the joys and rewards of helping others who aren’t as fortunate.
4. Exercise or Go For a Run
When drinking alcohol, the brain gets flooded with dopamine (a feel-good neurotransmitter). That’s one of the reasons that many people drink – to feel good.
Thankfully there are a lot of other healthy ways that we can encourage our brains to make dopamine, and exercise is one of them. Exercise literally protects and rewires the brain.
Dopamine motivates us and makes us feel emotions like pleasure and satisfaction. Drinking or taking drugs is an unnatural way to activate the body’s dopamine pathways.
Why not get yourself addicted to the dopamine rush that you get when working out?
You can even get a feeling of euphoria or a “runner’s high” after aerobic exercise. In fact, the same receptors involved when a person smokes get activated when a person experiences runner’s high.
“Endorphin” is short for “endogenous morphine,” meaning we have morphine-like substances already in our bodies. We just need to be doing things that release them. Physical activity and meditation are the best ways to unlock these neurotransmitters.
German researchers have found that endorphins pass through the blood-brain barrier and trigger the brain’s endocannabinoid system when experiencing runner’s high.
As an added bonus, running is great for your health, as well as protecting and rewiring your brain.
Learn More: The RecoveryFit Program
5. Enjoy Dancing
Whether you decide to try out a new dance class at your gym or get up on the dance floor, dancing can enhance your feelings of power.
Researcher Amy Cuddy from Harvard University found that how we move our bodies can impact our minds, and the practice of power posing (which are a lot of the poses we do when dancing) positively influences our feelings.
Dancing can also impact mental health and induce feelings of happiness. Dancing is another activity that will promote the production of dopamine and serotonin, much better than drugs or alcohol can, with no negative consequences.
Luckily, the holidays are meant for celebrating, and dancing fits in perfectly.
6. Make Meaningful Connections
People often use substances because they feel a lack of connection with others. Substances are sometimes used to create false connections with others.
When we are fully conscious and present we can foster meaningful friendships and connections that will enrich our lives.
The holidays should be about enjoying time with family and friends. We get so busy during the year that we often forget to be present in the moment and appreciate those who mean the most to us.
Take the time during the holiday season to be mindful of those we care about and truly connect with them, while putting aside work or other obligations for just a day or two.
Time is precious, especially as we get older, and it’s okay to use the holidays as a respite from the daily grind and make the most of relishing in the company of loved ones.
Another idea is to plan a “Friendsgiving” with sober friends. Of all the things we have to be grateful for, our connection with others and authentic, loving relationships must be at the top of most people’s list.
7. Expand Your Mind
During the holidays you’ll have plenty of time to pick up a new skill or read some of the books you never had time for in the past. Enjoy this opportunity to make time to expand your mind.
Alcohol and drugs damage the brain, so why not do the opposite and enhance your brain. Read, watch documentaries, or educate yourself about things you’ve always felt passionate about.
Instead of avoiding life with drugs, dive in and enjoy yourself, learn to enjoy learning and expanding your mind. There are tons of courses on sites like Udemy, or books you can download on Amazon. There hasn’t ever been a better time to learn.
Additional Tips for Getting Through the Holidays Sober
Meeting Makers Make It
If you are a member of a 12-Step community, hit extra meetings, this is our tribe. And if you are looking for others who understand how stressful and difficult the holidays can be, you’ll surely find them in an AA meeting.
All Things Pass
Every craving has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Every difficult situation is transitory. You will get through it.
Practice “compassionate curiosity” for difficult people in your life by trying to figure out what kind of pain they are suffering from that would lead them to want to hurt others, either consciously or unconsciously.
Be aware that sometimes when someone does something that really bothers us, that can actually be a reflection of something about ourselves that we do not like or do not accept.
Find Quiet Time
This is a very loud, very hyper busy time of year. Those of us who suffer from a mental illness or substance abuse can get overwhelmed by the stimulus.
Brew a cup of tea or cocoa, read a book, or watch a movie. Take quiet time for self-care so that you can recharge your batteries.
When all else fails… just breathe.
Did you know that diaphragmatic breathing (breathing with your belly) has been proven to reduce psychological stress? You can make it part of your meditation practice, or just take a second to breathe in deeply, and breathe out slowly in stressful situations.
The Bottom Line on Enjoying Sober Holidays
When you step up and get into the swing of it, enjoying sober holidays can be a refreshing and enlightening experience.
Being fully present and mindful allows you to take full advantage of what life has to offer. The old patterns of drinking or taking drugs will completely lose their attraction when you embrace sobriety and love your new life.
Surviving the holidays sober isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always fun, but it’s very, very do-able. Just remember, you aren’t alone. We all struggle sometimes.
Be kind. Be thankful for what you do have. Give freely, and get in touch with that generosity that is such an important part of what it means to be human, but is so overlooked and, sadly, in such short supply in our culture these days.
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