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How to prevent a relapse during the holidays
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How to prevent a relapse during the holidays

Written by Seth Fletcher on December 4, 2019
Last update: February 26, 2024

Navigating holidays can be particularly challenging, especially for individuals struggling with addiction and their loved ones. For those in recovery, all the triggers and stressors encountered during the festive season can make staying on the path to sobriety increasingly difficult. 

The data we’ve gathered between 2017 and 2023 underlines that the holidays are the most difficult times of the year for them. In the last six years, in January we’ve seen a 6.40% surge in calls compared to December the years before, with a notable 14.44% increase in serious calls reporting disruptive incidents involving addicted family members during the festive season.

In January 2023, we had a substantial uptick of 21.78% in rehab admissions compared to December 2022. These statistics suggest that the holiday season has a massive impact on people struggling with addiction and their families and indicate a significant risk of relapse.

94% of people who completed CCFA’s addiction program made significant overall improvement. That’s why we want to use our expertise and offer our support to people in recovery and their loved ones, hoping we can help as many people in need as possible to keep up with their recovery process. So…

How can people in addiction recovery prevent a relapse during the holidays?

Navigating the complexities of addiction recovery is a unique journey for each person, and the steps required to stay on the right track are tailored to the specific circumstances of each person. 

Despite the personalized nature of this process, there are certain universal strategies that individuals in recovery can take to prevent a relapse, especially during the holiday season.

Here are our recommended actions for you to consider if you are in active recovery:

Identify and replicate the actions that helped you manage your addiction before

Reflect on a time when recovery was going well and identify the activities and habits that contributed to that. Think about this like an old-time puzzle where you look at two similar pictures, and you have to identify ten things that are different. The first picture contains all the things that have worked for you in the past. That might include going to bed at the same time every night, going to the gym, going to AA meetings, seeing a therapist, and taking your medication. Do an inventory of all those factors, and then think of the second picture — the holidays — and see if you struggle with certain emotions and thoughts related to this or if you find it hard to stick to your routine. 

If the answer is yes, you’re probably not the best version of yourself, so try to recreate the actions that helped you before and build a roadmap to help you go through the holidays. 

Usually, relapse occurs when we don’t facilitate the environment that led to the positive behaviour change in the first place. Ask yourself what are the things that have worked for you in the past. Find everything you're doing at that time and try to replicate that with structure through the holidays. 

Make a list of your triggers

Put together a list of your triggers and then make decisions for the holidays based on how you can better avoid or deal with them. For example, if family gatherings cause you stress, and that's one of your triggers, probably it’s not a good idea to attend them. Or, in case there is a trigger that you can’t change, for instance, living next to an alcohol store or having other addicts in the family, think of a concrete plan to manage these stressors.  

Stay connected with your recovery support group and people that you trust 

Stay in touch with your recovery support system, such as your therapist or sponsor, and ask them for guidance and help if you feel overwhelmed. Approach the people you trust from your family or friends group and tell them how you feel and what kind of support you need from them during the holidays.

Avoid people that aren’t healthy for your recovery

Try to stay away from the people who are not healthy for you, such as people who might encourage you to retake your addiction or push your boundaries in any way. Also, try to avoid people that you used to engage with when you had a substance use disorder. Do an honest inventory by asking yourself if the people around you are healthy for your recovery, and then choose not to spend time with those who aren’t.

Keep a journal of the things that make you feel safe and unsafe

Do a journaling exercise where you list all the protective factors that you have in your life, such as people and places that are nurturing and have helped you before in your recovery. For instance, you can add family members and friends who are recovery-promoting, your sponsor and counsellor, or anyone who will flag any unusual behaviour you might have. 

Conversely, make a list of all the risk factors you might encounter during the holidays, such as people who might put pressure on you to come back to your addiction or push your limits. After you have both lists, devise a plan to engage with as many positive factors as possible and avoid the risk factors. 

Having this written down is the key to seeing things clearly and organizing them easier. You can read them every morning, prepare for difficult situations and build some sense of control.

Create a safety plan

Have a backup plan in place for situations that might challenge you. Think about a way out of those situations and make a list of things that you need to watch for. Let someone you trust know about your plan so you can call them in case of an emergency.

Let's say you have to go to a family gathering where there are recovery-promoting people but also people who aren't. Think about an exit plan if you feel like you might want to leave at some point, think about someone to call to get you out and come up with ways to react to tense situations. Having this planned out will prevent you from reacting out of impulse, relapsing and then feeling guilty about it.

Have a ‘safe person’ to attend holiday gatherings with

Have someone that you trust come to holiday gatherings with you. Make sure they are aware of your struggles and can be there for you to show support during the gathering, but also that can take you out of there. You can come up with code words in case you need to let them know you are triggered and want to exit the gathering safely and avoid potential feelings of failure. Also, make sure you have someone you can process this with after to avoid negative feelings of guilt.

Break your goals into categories — physical, emotional, social, spiritual

Break down your goals into physical, emotional, spiritual, and social categories. These goals will be unique to you and can vary significantly for every situation. The social goals, for example, might involve both actively engaging in social activities and, at times, attending only essential events based on personal well-being needs. Think about anything you might add to these four categories that are good for your well-being. Breaking down goals into these categories helps narrow down the overall scope.

Set and communicate your expectations

Think about what you are willing to talk about and what you might want to avoid, and tell your family and friends about your expectations and boundaries.

“When attending family events, I establish clear boundaries regarding the topics I am willing to discuss and those I prefer to avoid. I don't want to find myself under the microscope and discuss my personal issues during a holiday gathering. By setting expectations in advance, I can navigate through potential surprises, such as arguments that tend to arise. This approach helps me maintain a sense of control, ensuring that I'm not drawn into situations that could disturb my personal peace. It's essential to communicate these boundaries to my family, letting them know that I won't engage in behaviour that involves picking on someone or making them uncomfortable,”

believes Megan Thompson, Certified Addictions Counsellor at CCFA, relying on her personal experience in dealing with addiction and mental health issues.

How can the family support their addicted loved ones during the holidays?

The holiday season is equally challenging for the families and friends of people in addiction recovery as it is for those facing struggles. Here are our suggested actions for families to support their loved ones in staying on the path to recovery during the holidays:

Be as normal as possible

Act as normal as possible and encourage your loved one to stay around you through your actions. It’s safer for the person with an addiction to hang around the family so they feel protected. Try to provide a safe and nurturing environment for them and not act differently than usual. The more you’re cautious about saying certain things and the more you’re walking on eggshells around the person in recovery, the worse the outcome might be, as this only adds stress to them.

Don’t become hyper-vigilant

It’s already stressful enough for people in recovery to attend family gatherings, not be hyper-vigilant or constantly watch what they do. It is very difficult for people struggling with addiction to feel like all eyes are on them. This extra care will just add to the stress of the holiday and also give the impression that you don’t trust them to maintain their sobriety.

Go to support meetings together

If the person struggling with addiction feels comfortable with it, go to support meetings with them. That might be a good place to share how all of you feel about this stressful time and find ways to go through it together.

“My sponsor encouraged me to make a list of all the AA meetings that we’re taking place during the holidays, and I remember one that I attended when I was pretty early in sobriety, and it was very impactful. It was with the members of the group and their family members. When the family members got up and gave their little piece about how they feel this Christmas with their loved one in sobriety, that made a huge difference to me.”

says Steve Butler, Primary Addiction Counsellor at CCFA, who has struggled with addiction in the past.

Set clear boundaries

The boundaries of the family are just as important as the ones of the person in recovery, so make sure you tell your loved ones what yours are. Even if it might be difficult to set your limits, remember that you’ve also gone through a lot and might need some time to heal or expect them to act in a specific way for you to enjoy the holiday.

“Every family has its unique dynamics, and some may have experienced significant challenges, making it difficult to welcome a particular individual back for a gathering. It's crucial to recognize that some families need time to heal, and establishing this boundary is essential. For individuals in recovery, having clear boundaries is vital, but it's equally important for family members to set their own limits. This could involve allowing someone to attend a family dinner while specifying that certain past behaviours, such as drinking or other problematic actions, are not acceptable,”

says Kamryn Washer, Aftercare Services Coordinator at CCFA, who, among others, specializes in relapse prevention.

Manage your expectations

Some families tend to remember the times before the addiction, expecting the holiday to be extraordinary, or get stuck on the bad times and fear for the future. However, the reality may not align with these expectations. It's important to approach the situation with realistic, perhaps lower expectations, understanding that it may not be the perfect Christmas or an ideal gathering. 

Think about potential scenarios and learn how to respond, but avoid extremes in expectations - whether overly optimistic or pessimistic. This will help you navigate different family situations with a more balanced perspective.

Be ready to have tough conversations

A common concern among families is the fear that having a hard conversation about a potential relapse or setting boundaries may lead to increased depression or anger, potentially increasing their substance use. In such cases, repeatedly drawing lines in the sand without positive outcomes becomes counterproductive.

In case you need to, be ready to have hard conversations. Tough conversations may be difficult and come with a lot of guilt, but they could be the catalyst that encourages your loved one to seek the help they need. Initiate a difficult conversation and set a firm boundary if you feel it’s necessary. For instance, deciding not to allow the person to attend family events due to their behaviour or a relapse could be the right impulse for positive change.

Communicating that they are not invited while underlining that you are willing to support them in seeking help, whether through rehab or outpatient programs, sends a clear message. It could be the nudge they need to consider seeking assistance. Having open, honest conversations and setting necessary boundaries may be uncomfortable, but they are essential for facilitating change and promoting a healthier dynamic within the family.

Conclusion

If you find yourself struggling with keeping your sobriety or helping your loved one stay on the recovery path during the holidays, remember you are not alone. We offer relapse prevention therapy that gives you or your loved one the best chance at remaining sober. You can reach out for support by calling our addiction recovery centre at 1-855-499-9446. You can learn more about CCFA’s relapse prevention program and counselling for recovering addicts here.

Certified Addiction Counsellor

Seth brings many years of professional experience working the front lines of addiction in both the government and privatized sectors.

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