How To Handle The Holidays When You Don’t Drink, According To Experts

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The holiday season brings with it a lot of joy and excitement, but this time of year can also be especially tough if you don't drink. With the onslaught of holiday parties, office happy hours, and family events, on top of the general stress of the season, potential triggers for alcohol and substance use are everywhere. If you’re looking to maintain your sobriety and stay healthy, planning ahead for how you are going to handle the holidays when you don't drink is a great idea.

The holidays can “be a tough time to remain present and avoid the ‘numbing’ behaviors that dull these harder feelings,” Samantha Pauley, LMFT, LPC, director Of Outpatient Services and Day Treatment at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Oregon locations, tells Bustle in an email. “So for those that are working to stay sober, there's added anxiety and worry about how to be in challenging situations and not drink or use.”

Pauley recommends doing some self-evaluation and identifying what traditions or "have tos" may not be aligned with supporting recovery or a sober lifestyle. Engaging with peers who are working towards similar goals can also help normalize any anxiety and diminish any potential shame towards feeling "different” from other people during the season.

“We encourage people to have a clear and pre-identified plan for what to say, who are their allies, and have an exit strategy,” Pauley explains. “Having a plan increases the confidence that people experience in knowing that they have multiple back-up options and people to connect with that understand their goals and efforts.”

For someone who is abstaining from drinking, some coping mechanisms at holiday parties include: bringing an alternative (non-drinking) activity or game to share, knowing where to stand (not by the bar), and preparing quick answers to the inevitable, “Why aren’t you drinking?” queries.

Another important aspect is to set realistic expectations, and not to feel the pressure to overexert oneself socially. “Adjust expectations around how long is necessary to be at these gatherings,” says Pauley. “Plan to shorten them — and bookend them with sober, supportive activities.” These activities can include community or recovery meetings, as well as self-care practices like cooking a meal, exercising, doing some charity work, or looking to spirituality for additional support.

When dealing with stress, finding a safe group of people to confide in and talk through these feelings is key. If family is a cause of stress, take time-outs as needed, in conjunction with regular self-care practices like journaling. “Taking a few minutes to recollect your thoughts and ground your feelings can help refocus and avoid escalations,” says Pauley.

She also recommends taking note of when families play out familiar roles or dynamics that may affect you negatively. While it won't work for every family, voicing new thoughts, setting boundaries with family members, and being vocal about your feelings can help reduce some of the tension or help you step out of those familial patterns.

If the stress is due to finances during the holidays, alternatives like gifting homemade presents within your means, or drawing names in a family as opposed to gifting everyone, could help alleviate some of the financial pressure. Another way to help manage overwhelming feelings is to focus on the positive side, aka gratitude and reflection. Pauley suggests incorporating five minutes or so in the morning and the evening to reflect on the day, focusing on what went well and when you experienced positive emotions like joy, gratitude, and appreciation. “Building in more gratitude resets our threshold for stress,” says Pauley.

Finally, it's important to remember that the recovery process is highly individual. While there isn’t one method that works for everyone, it’s important to self-evaluate and check in with support systems, including addiction professionals, family, and friends, on what works best for you. Through proper planning, surrounding yourself with supportive people who understand your needs, and setting realistic expectations, navigating the holidays while sober can be made considerably more manageable.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).