Why the Holidays Are Difficult for People With Addictions

Published on: 22 Dec 2017
christmas dinner beer wine glasses cheers

Updated on 12/18/20

While the holidays are a source of joy for many, for others they can be a source of distress. Holidays aren’t always merry and bright and, unfortunately, may be a particular problem for those with substance use disorder. This year, the most difficult for many in recent memory, even those without recognized difficulties with substances might struggle. 

The 2020 holiday season might be the perfect storm to enable substance use and abuse, with many of us experiencing isolation, financial distress, health issues, on top of holiday stress. The holidays are often associated with extra indulgence, including often substances, which, while it may feel like it brings stress relief or provides a way to cope with stress can be damaging long term and is associated with high mental and physical health costs.

Why Is This Year Different?

So, why and how will substance use during the holidays this year be different? Well, it’s 2020 so there are a few reasons. Let’s dig in below!  

There’s been an increase in mental health struggles

A recent CDC survey shed light on the absolutely devastating effects of the pandemic on mental health, particularly for young people. The survey found that there’s been an increase in anxiety and depression symptoms, trauma and stressor-related disorder symptoms, and suicidal ideation. On top of this, a whopping 13.3% of adults in the US have started or or increased their use of substances during the pandemic— meaning that even people without preexisting substance use disorder may be using substances in different ways this year. 

More people will be alone

Due to the circumstances caused by COVID-19, many may be spending the holidays alone in order to protect the safety of loved ones. This may lend itself to substance use for a couple of reasons. First, you may feel it’s more acceptable to indulge in substances when there isn’t the judgement of others around you or these loved ones may help keep you accountable. Second, you may turn to substances to cope with and ease the loneliness you might be feeling at the loss of these treasured traditions.

There’s an “indulgence mentality” this year

The holidays are often associated with indulgence and extravagance. There’s a mindset surrounding excess — excessive gifts, food, and drink. More drinking or drug use around the holidays can lead to problems for those with substance use disorders (and even those without). During quarantine, when we’ve been deprived of so much, this mentality often feels exacerbated because we feel like we deserve to treat ourselves.

There may be more triggers

The holidays are known to be a trigger for many people who struggle with substance use, even in years pre-COVID. The holidays are often stressful — end of year work deadlines, shopping, and festivities (your Zoom calendar is probably full) — there’s almost no end to the anxiety-inducing triggers. Plus, interacting with certain family members may bring up stressful memories. For some,even just being in their childhood home may be triggering. This year, not seeing loved ones — or dealing with the associated guilt trips from not seeing them — may feel equally overwhelming. Too many of us reach for substances when triggered by these stressors. 

What You Can Do to Prepare and Take Care of Yourself

Come up with a game plan beforehand — before the phone calls home, the shopping, or the actual holiday — especially if you know that the holidays are a trigger for you. Having a plan ready will help you feel calm and collected going into the holidays. Write the plandown somewhere so you can reference it if you feel yourself starting to slip. Having resources available — a sponsor, a healthy alternative, someone to keep you accountable — in the heat of the moment can make all of the difference. If you have a therapist, you can work with them to come up with a plan. Here are a few ideas of tools you can include in your plan. 

Be aware of your triggers

To begin your plan, it will really help to be aware of your triggers and list them out. What tends to cause you to seek relief? What specifically are you anticipating being difficult this year? It might be helpful to look at a calendar. Once you’re aware of your triggers, and have a solid list of them, you can try to either avoid or to cope with them in a healthy way.

Have an accountability buddy

Especially if you’re spending the holidays alone, having an accountability buddy that you answer to can be very beneficial. You can share your goals with each other about staying sober or using responsibly during the holidays and hold each other responsible. 

Distance yourself from triggering people

You may be physically or socially distant from those who are triggering, but if you’re still talking to them on the phone or texting, this won’t do you much good. Many folks know how to push your buttons as easily remotely as in person. Around the holidays, limit contact with people who are triggering and make you feel the urge to use substances. 

Unplug from social media

If social media is making you feel more disconnected from the world, or if certain types of photos are triggering to you — maybe others using substances irresponsibly — it’s a good idea to unplug from social media for a period at least long enough to get some distance and perspective. A social media detox might be just what the doctor ordered.

Keep yourself busy 

Find positive activities to take up your time and distract you from less healthy options. If you have a lot of idle time — as many of us do after that last busy push with work or school — you might feel bored, which may again make you want to reach for substances. Instead, fill your time with hobbies and self-care to help you stay healthy and well. 

Reach out if you’re in crisis

Lastly, if you’re in a crisis, or feel like you are in danger of hurting yourself, don’t hesitate to get help from trained crisis counselors. Text HOME to 741741 to be connected to someone from Crisis Text Line, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK if you’d prefer to speak by phone.

Having an understanding of why substance use during the holidays this year will be different can help you prepare and gear up for the big days. Follow these tips and you’ll be on track to staying healthy and safe over the holidays. 

If you feel like you could use more support during the holiday relating to substance use, consider connecting with a licensed Talkspace therapist — a convenient, inexpensive first step.

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