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'Have an exit plan': Experts say protecting sobriety during the holidays is possible

Sobriety pitfalls are everywhere during the holidays, from the obvious "Drinksgiving" to more passive triggers like a stressful family dinner.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Heading into the holiday season, many will be celebrating without alcohol. For some, it's part of their journey toward sobriety, which can be extra challenging this time of year.

“The holidays are not always joyous and celebratory,” said Molly Simpson, director of clinical services at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Newberg.

She said family gatherings can be stressful enough for someone who's struggling with sobriety, but throw in the lingering impacts of the pandemic and you have a powder keg of stressors that could trigger a relapse. Simpson suggested the first thing to do is make a plan for how you're going to support yourself.

“Don't just sort of wing it and hope for the best,” said Simpson. “Really think about — are there friends that I can lean on and have available to me? Have an exit plan so that if you're at a family gathering and it starts to get stressful and you start to feel overwhelmed, you have an exit strategy.”

Simpson suggested scheduling extra support group meetings or therapy sessions, just knowing that things could get difficult. She said it’s also important to remember to take care of yourself. Remember to eat, drink enough water, get enough sleep and shower.

“When people are feeling better mentally and physically, they're less likely to resort to things like needing to use substances to feel better, to get that sort of chemical boost that they're missing because the other things they do to take care of themselves haven't been happening,” said Simpson.

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Simpson also suggested that it's okay to be realistic about the things that could set you off. For some, that might mean setting boundaries with family and friends.

“Especially for people in early recovery, maybe saying, you know what, this just isn't the time of year. I'm not going to be able to join that holiday gathering, or I'm not up for it. I'm not feeling ready or able to join you this year — and that's okay."

While it's easy to focus on the negative and find reasons to feel resentful, Simpson said embracing gratitude can be powerful way to fight that off. Whether it's by writing an unsolicited thank-you note or just taking two minutes each day to think of five things you're grateful for in that moment.

“There's actual research that shows that people who have an active gratitude practice do report feeling less depressed, less stress, less anxious,” said Simpson.

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