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Lincenberg: Stay sober with relapse-prevention tips for the holidays


For the vast majority, the holidays are a time for joy and celebration. The idea of getting together with family and enjoying each other’s company is one of the best parts of the holidays. However, the holidays can be a stressful and relapse-triggering experience for people in addiction recovery.

People in recovery can struggle with returning home for the holidays since their home may be the place where their battle with addiction first occurred. Returning home could bring back traumatic memories, or reconnect you with old friends you used drugs or alcohol with, all of which could be triggers.

Relapse rates are already high year-round, and the holiday season can heighten the issues that may trigger relapses, such as social pressures, loneliness, or a bad financial situation. Relapse during the holidays is always a concern, but it is never a guarantee. There are steps you can take and resources available to anyone looking for help in their addiction recovery this holiday season.

Create an escape plan

Most importantly, have a relapse prevention plan. Seeing old friends and family over the holidays can be incredibly difficult if your friends and family are around drugs and alcohol.

If you are at an event that is triggering, it is important to have a plan for how you will remove yourself from the situation for a time. Maybe you attend dinner with family and friends but have plans to leave early if there are triggering factors. Bring a sober friend with you who can keep you accountable and give you an excuse to leave when it is time. Your sobriety is the most important thing and leaving a holiday event early is better than relapsing.

Understand the family dynamics and your triggers

Family can be wonderfully supportive and loving, but it can also be the reason for some of the most stressful situations. Understand your family dynamic and know which family members or situations may be triggers for you. If you have a strained relationship with one of your family members or one of them also has a substance abuse problem, then it is important to make a plan. Plan how you will engage with them and when you should remove yourself from a situation they are involved in. Plan for what types of support you will utilize in these situations.

If a situation begins to trigger you then it is important to be assertive and not let any friends or family pressure you into having a drink or using drugs. Friends and family can be the hardest people to say no to, but it is imperative you set boundaries ahead of time.

It is also important to note when you are also having a good time with your family and feel stress-free. Note family members that validate your sobriety and support you. Spending time with people that validate you and avoiding those that don’t can help you enjoy the holidays while maintaining sobriety.

Maintain a clear mind through exercise

Relapse is most likely to occur when you are neglecting your own needs and self-care, and one of the best ways to reduce stress and clear your mind is exercise. It is important to make time to exercise, as it can help free the mind from negative thoughts. Exercise can provide a consistent routine, increase self-esteem, and help with overall mental health.

Exercise can help increase the brain’s production of “feel-good” neurochemicals, so the likelihood of relapse may decrease if you are able to stay active. I would also recommend practicing yoga or engaging in diaphragmatic breathing exercises before entering a potentially triggering situation. Doing these things will put your mind and body in a good state and help you deal with the stresses of the holidays.

Go to meetings during the holidays

Just because it is the holidays does not mean you should avoid support group meetings. Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, and other support groups are great ways to connect with like-minded people trying to maintain sobriety during a stressful holiday season. Continue to attend your regular meetings if you are in town and find a local meeting if you are traveling for the holidays. Most support groups are continuing to hold virtual meetings as well as in-person meetings, so access to these meetings is easier than ever.

Arizonans looking for a Narcotics Anonymous meeting can find one at arizona-na.org.

Arizonans looking for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting can find one at alcoholicsanonymous.com/aa-meetings/arizona.

Editor’s note: Devin Lincenberg, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist with specialty training in health psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy at Recovia, an outpatient treatment center in Arizona specializing in chronic pain, general mental health and substance use treatment. Learn more at recovia.com.