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Substance Abuse and the Holidays

While the holidays are a joyous time for many individuals, it is not be the most wonderful time of the year for some. It can be especially hard for those struggling with substance use issues, or those who have loved ones struggling. Depending on circumstances and triggers, people may be more likely to struggle or relapse. 

Why the Holiday Season Can be Triggering 

The holidays can be an exciting time for many people, and a time to see family and friends. However, for some, it can also be a very stressful time. Typically for many people, there is a lot of planning, potential travel, and financial obligation. In addition, it can be exhausting, present family conflicts, and bring up past traumas or feelings of loneliness. With all of these potential stressors, those who are struggling with sobriety or substance abuse may face increased triggers or mental health challenges. Substance abuse and the holidays

Tips for Those Struggling

If you are in recovery and the holiday season presents stress, or if you are worried about potential triggers, there are tips to help prevent a relapse or potentially harmful situation. Some things that may be helpful include:

Planning: Planning ahead of time for gatherings can be helpful for those who may encounter problematic family members or circumstances. For example, you may choose to limit your time at a particular event, or rehearse responses to potential questions. In addition, avoiding family or friends that may encourage substance use might be necessary.

Boundaries: Boundaries can be key to navigating the holidays. Be intentional about which events you attend and what you are or aren’t willing to participate in. It’s okay to decline or say no if you are uncomfortable or if it is unhealthy for you.

New Activities: If the holidays have previously catered to your substance abuse issues or if they have proven to be triggering, try creating new traditions or participating in new activities. You may choose to spend time with sober friends instead of family, volunteer in your community, or engage in new activities that support your recovery. 

Self-care: Taking care of yourself is essential to maintaining a positive mindset and preventing harmful circumstances. Maintaining your routine, exercise, mindfulness, and other self-care practices may help when navigating difficult situations during the holiday season. 

Support: Having a support system is important during this time of year, especially if certain events or family members are triggering. If you are attending an event that you believe may be challenging, bring a friend that you feel safe around. Spend time with sober friends, attend meetings that are available in your area, and reach out to supportive contacts such as sponsors to help navigate any difficult moments. Being proactive can ensure a positive holiday experience. 

Tips to Include Struggling Family Members

For those with family members or loved ones who are struggling, there are ways to include that person and benefits to doing so if possible. Preemptively not allowing someone to attend a holiday gathering could further that person’s feelings of isolation or helplessness, which in turn could exacerbate the substance abuse. Considering the pros and cons of allowing that person to attend can be useful when trying to plan. Simultaneously, it is not recommended to force someone struggling to attend a holiday gathering if they choose not to. 

For those that do attend, there are a few things that may be useful to keep in mind during any gatherings. A few tips include:

Patience: Approaching your loved one with patience is important during any events. Not only is it important to recognize the physical dependence that characterizes substance abuse, it is also important to remember that recovery takes time. It is important to meet this person where they are. Refraining from unrealistic expectations, such as a sudden change or realization from this person, is important for both you and your loved one.

Conversations: If someone struggling with substance abuse is attending a holiday gathering, keep the conversation light. Avoid any heavy topics or triggers. This is likely not an appropriate time for an intervention or confrontation, and may make the person feel ambushed or defensive.

Boundaries: While it is important to understand where someone is in terms of recovery, it is also important to establish boundaries for the gathering. If you are hosting, then establishing rules for your home is important in ensuring a positive experience. Choose rules and boundaries that work for you and your family. Communicate these rules ahead of time and make sure all attendees follow them. For example, you may choose to not allow alcohol at the event, or you may enforce a drink limit for guests. In addition, if someone breaks a rule, the boundary should be enforced. That person will need to leave. Make sure the boundaries are clear. The person struggling should also come to the event sober. 

Self-care: Creating space for a loved one struggling with substance abuse can be challenging to navigate. It is important to take care of yourself. It is okay to keep your distance from someone who is struggling. It’s also important to do things that ensure your well-being, whether that includes self-care practices or talking to a professional. Below are resources for those struggling with substance abuse, as well as resources for those with loved ones struggling. 

Additional Resources

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, there are resources. 

You can access SAMHSA’s National Helpline, in addition to other resources here.

Visit americanaddictioncenters.org for additional tips and resources. 

Resources for those with loved ones who are struggling can be found here.


This blog was written by STM Learning’s editorial staff for educational purposes only. It is not intended to give specific medical or legal advice. For expert information on the discussed subjects, please refer to STM Learning’s publications.

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