What To Do At Holiday Parties If You Don't Drink, According To Experts

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Holiday party season is upon us: Work parties, intimate gatherings with friends, family reunions — there’s no shortage of soirées to bombard your social calendar in the next few weeks. And while any excuse to dress up and eat hors d'oeuvres is generally welcome, the onslaught of holiday parties can also be daunting if you’re someone who doesn’t drink, whether you are in recovery for substance use, you abstain for health reasons, or it's simply your personal preference. Navigating the holiday party circuit when you don’t drink can sometimes be tough, so if you find yourself in a social situation not knowing what to do with yourself, know that you’re not alone.

While the notion that more and more millennials are choosing to opt out of drinking culture has spread in the last few years, that doesn’t necessarily make the practice any easier at gatherings. After saying your hellos and hitting the snack bar, you might find yourself not knowing what to do, especially if you are newly sober, but there are still tips to make the experience more enjoyable.

If you can, bring a friend to ensure you have someone to talk to, suggests Dr. Harris Stratyner, vice president of clinical services at Caron New York and clinical associate professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Having a friend who already understands your situation and doesn’t need any explanations can help relieve some of the social pressure in a party setting.

Of course, surrounding yourself with people who understand your choices and won’t pressure you either way is an ideal scenario. Another easy tip Dr. Stratyner recommends is having a non-alcoholic drink in hand to help deter people from offering you a drink.

If you’re not drinking because you're recovering from substance use, Dr. Stratyner suggests planning ahead to prepare yourself to handle any concerns or triggers you may have. This may include attending support group meetings, having a friend on standby who you know will be available to talk, and speaking with your counselor about the best ways to manage any of your triggers.

If you’re still feeling nervous, develop a safety plan. “Talk with a therapist, sober support or a sponsor before going [to a holiday party] to know what to do if triggered or feeling uncomfortable,” says Dr. Stratyner. “Have an exit strategy to be able to leave early, also talk ahead of time about how to answer uncomfortable questions."

If you’re at a party and feeling uncomfortable, plan an easy out for yourself. It’s totally OK to leave a holiday party if you find that you’re not having a great time. If you’re in recovery, especially, understand where you are ahead of time. Dr. Stratyner stresses that there is no shame in deciding not to attend a party if you aren’t feeling up to it. “It’s OK to prioritize yourself and your recovery,” he adds.

Hopefully, these tips can help make your social gatherings a little more manageable throughout the holiday season, non-alcoholic drink in hand.

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