Mclean Hospital

Tips for Staying Safe and Sober During the Holidays

By Frederick Goggans, MD

December 14, 2018

It’s important for people to have a realistic attitude about the potential for anxiety or conflict during the holiday season—especially individuals who have issues with alcohol or drug abuse.

Most of us go into the holiday period hoping for a harmonious time with family, friends, and co-workers, but there may be hidden conflicts based on past experiences or expectations that may not be realized. The tension between the reality of our situations and our idealized images of holiday harmony can lead to anxiety. To manage that anxiety, many use alcohol or other substances excessively.

For clinicians like myself who work on substance abuse and recovery issues, we often see these individuals when the holidays are over. In January, many people enter treatment having overreacted to holiday events by abusing drugs or alcohol, having suicidal thoughts, or engaging in injurious behaviors. In some cases, their activities stem from disappointment or rejection—they may see themselves as disappointing someone or someone disappointing them during the holiday period. In any event, some of these people may come to treatment in a quasi-emergency situation, either through intoxication or withdrawal, a suicide attempt, or an attempt to injure oneself, and they sometimes may need to be stabilized in a hospital setting.

Hot chocolate on a festive table

If you are at risk for these behaviors, be realistic about how the holidays can increase your anxiety and stress and lead to dangerous behavior. But also, realize that you can take steps before and during the holidays to avoid problems. Here are a few suggestions:

  • If you have a history of substance abuse or alcohol abuse, it’s important to protect yourself. If you are involved in a recovery program, stay centered in your program by continuing to go to meetings. Connect with like-minded and sober individuals in your program, and remain in contact with your sponsor and peers. Don’t isolate.
  • Embrace the “holiday spirit” and try not to be too self-absorbed. Be of service to others by taking part in volunteer activities. Also, take advantage of the many special events that most mutual help organizations present during the holiday season. Stay involved and engaged.
  • Be sure to concentrate on your overall health. By eating properly, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly, you can keep your body sound, as well as your mind.
  • Keep an eye on the types of activities you’re involved in over the holidays, and avoid risky situations. But, if you find yourself in an environment where drugs or alcohol are being used, know where the doors are and have an exit strategy.

This year, you may find yourself in a better place than you were in last year. There could be an opportunity for you to take stock of your success and get validation from your loved ones. Be sure to celebrate your sobriety!

Frederick Goggans, MD, is the medical director of Borden Cottage, a McLean Hospital Signature Addiction Recovery Program located in Camden, Maine. Dr. Goggans oversees a team of expert clinicians who provide residential treatment for individuals with drug and alcohol addictions.

Addiction to alcohol, opiates, or other substances is a serious psychiatric illness, most often complicated by other mental health diagnoses such as depression and anxiety. At McLean Hospital, we are committed to providing exceptional clinical care to help individuals work toward recovery. If you or a loved one needs help overcoming addiction, please call 877.203.1211 to learn more about our Signature Addiction Recovery Programs.