The holidays are a stressful time of year for many, including people who don’t normally succumb to stress very easily. Many of the issues that make holidays stressful for those recovering from an addiction are often the same ones that are at the root of the addiction, including family and financial stress.
Add to that a hectic travel schedule and the prospect of having to navigate social situations where everyone seems to be drinking, and it’s easy to see why the holidays are particularly difficult for women in recovery.
The Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health points out that women cope with stress differently than men do. While men are more likely to respond to stress by simply escaping the stressful situation, women are more likely to stick it out by drawing on the support of friends and family and shifting into caretaker mode. But when you are in recovery from a drug or alcohol addiction, pasting a smile on your face and putting your best foot forward can put you at a higher risk of relapsing.
This holiday season, it’s important to address your stress mindfully and cope with it in a proactive, productive, and meaningful way.
The relationship between stress and addiction is complex, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and it affects the neurochemical systems in the body, including the dopamine system.
Prolonged stress depletes the brain’s natural dopamine reserves, which affects the activity of other endorphins, particularly those necessary for maintaining a good mood and preventing pain. The result is that during the holidays, when your day-to-day stress levels may be higher than normal, minor stressors can become major triggers for relapse.
Whatever the origination of your stress, planning ahead is essential for maintaining sobriety and good mental health throughout the holidays. Before the season comes into full swing, sit quietly and make a list of your sources of holiday stress: a small budget but a long gift list, having to catch a flight on the busiest travel day of the year, the long-held family tradition of drinking heavily over the holidays. Identify as many stressors as you can, then brainstorm some specific strategies for reducing your associated stress.
For example, if your small budget is already giving you the holiday blues, try to narrow down your list of gift recipients. Instead of buying gifts for all of your co-workers, your kids’ teachers, your hairdresser, and the mail carrier, present each of them with a batch of goodies you baked yourself, along with a handwritten note of appreciation.
If your family tradition includes a gift exchange, make a motion to dispense with gifts and instead have everyone contribute $10 to be donated to a worthy cause.
If your stress is largely travel-related, determine what in particular stresses you out, and visualize how you will handle it. If you dread the long lines and all the waiting around, have a good book or a soothing playlist on hand to help you kill the time. If it’s the rushing that gets your blood pressure up, plan ahead to get to the airport with plenty of time to spare.
If aerophobia has you biting your nails, practice strategies to combat anxiety, such as deep breathing, meditation or progressive relaxation, or talk to your physician about medication that can help take the edge off during the flight.
It can be extremely difficult to shake years worth of conditioning when it comes to surviving dysfunctional family dynamics during the holidays. Start preparing yourself now by practicing letting go of resentments and visualizing staying neutral and calm during uncomfortable family gatherings.
Think of three ways you can refresh and reset when it gets to be too much: Go for a five-minute walk in the brisk air and count the blessings for which you’re grateful, arrange to have a friend standing by whom you can call for support, or step into the guest room, close the door, and do some sun salutations.
Have an excuse at the ready in the event you feel you need to leave in order to protect your sanity and your sobriety. If there will be alcohol at your family gatherings, consider inviting someone in recovery along to help support your abstinence.
To help you get into the right mindset for the stressful time ahead, turn your attention inward and draw on your spirituality. Meditate or practice deep breathing every day, work on mastering the art of letting go, and continue to evaluate the accuracy of your thoughts and beliefs as they relate to the issues that cause stress for you during the holidays.
Your therapist can help you work through specific issues and develop strategies for coping with specific stressors and triggers, such as your uncle who has opposite political beliefs than yours and always tries to push your buttons about politics. Your support group can also be of immeasurable help during the holidays by helping you find perspective as well as offering tried-and-true coping tips and role playing various scenarios with you.
Most importantly, try to keep your attention focused on the true meaning of the holidays: surround yourself as much as possible with the warmth of the people you love and who are good for your soul.