5 Holiday Stressors That Lead To Relapse

The time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s can be an especially stressful time for those in recovery, particularly those who are newly sober. But you don’t have to shut yourself off from life and become a hermit for three months for fear of falling into relapse. There are safe and sober alternatives. Knowing the five holiday stressors that lead to relapse is the first step in preparing a holiday action plan to keep you safe and sober in recovery.


During the holiday season, it seems like everyone is partying, decorating, arranging for guests, sending out invitations, stocking up on food and alcohol. Just knowing that there’s an annual office party or the family gets together for a blow-out holiday bash is enough to send stress levels higher. Add to this the knowledge that drugs and alcohol are likely to be present, a party atmosphere serves as a trigger and you associate party attendance with past use and you know that this is a holiday stressor you need to deal with. One study found that stress-related drug craving and associated psychobiological response in the laboratory are predictive of subsequent cocaine relapse in abstinent cocaine-dependent individuals.


Crowded stores, holiday gift lists, extra bills that you know will come due post-holidays all take a toll on your ability to manage stress during this time. For those new to recovery, having successful coping skills may mean the difference between succumbing to financial stress and relapsing because of it or staying the course and not getting over your head with respect to money. Avoid the tendency to buy expensive gifts or agree to any financial obligations that could come back to haunt you. Australian researchers found that ex-smokers with more financial stress were more likely to relapse.


The holiday season is one of the most stressful times of the year when it comes to emotional turmoil. Feelings of shame, guilt, humiliation, embarrassment, anger and depression may be associated with this period. Many people in recovery report they experience increased anxiety with respect to triggers and cravings during the holidays.

Family Conflict

Being in close contact with family members is another hot-button stressor during the holiday season. Coupled with the likelihood that alcohol will be served during family get-togethers or parties and the outlook is not promising for maintaining your sobriety. Old wounds may be reopened when family members drink, with resulting increase in conflict that may get out of hand –- not the least of which is the urge to drink or use just to escape it, likely a coping method used in the past.

Disruption in Schedules, Time Demands

With so many people busy with holiday parties, taking time off from work and schedules taking a backseat to holiday plans, is it any wonder that your normal routine will be disrupted? With work schedules jammed due to deadlines to meet before everyone takes off for a break, therapists or sponsors going out of town, increased demands from your spouse, partner or other family members, and your own inability to say no when asked to do something, schedule disruptions and demands on your time can put serious stress on your sobriety. It is also likely to affect your regular meeting attendance, exercise routine, even healthy eating patterns.

How to Have a Safe and Sober Holiday

Now that you know the five major holiday stressors, what can you do to protect yourself and remain safe and sober? It pays to have a plan, not just any plan, but a holiday plan.

  • Do what you’ve found effective so far in keeping you sober.
  • Make a daily schedule – and stick to it.
  •  Keep up regular 12-step group meeting attendance. If traveling, locate groups in the area and keep your meeting schedule. If you experience stress, immediately go to a meeting.
  •  Arrange to meet with your sponsor, by phone, if unable to meet in person.
  •  Be sure to get adequate rest, adhere to a normal exercise routine and eat well-balanced and regular meals.
  •  Avoid stressors as much as possible.
  •  Schedule sober activities during the holiday period. Many 12-step groups have sober holiday events that you can partake in.
  •  Use meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, going for a walk, tending to your spiritual needs, reading recovery literature, writing in your journal as healthy ways to cope.
  •  Prepare a polite way to say no to invitations you know you shouldn’t accept. If you are at a party or get-together and conflict ensues or you feel uncomfortable where others are drinking and/or using, leave.
  •  Accept that what you are feeling is normal, understandable and, most of all, manageable.
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