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holiday parties can be hard while in recovery.
December 2, 2016

Christmas Spirits: Saying “No” to Alcohol at Work Holiday Parties

holiday parties can be hard while in recovery.For those in recovery, the “spirits” of Christmas at work holiday parties can be a perennial concern this time of year. Festive, end-of-year celebrations hosted by employers are often replete with open bars and unlimited drinks on tap. In these circumstances, the presence of alcohol can be a cue to drink and a natural trigger for relapse—most especially for those in early recovery.

Naturally, then, such holiday occasions can elicit anxious feelings and even dread about how to say “no” to offers of alcohol and how to deal with the potential awkwardness of refusing. This article offers some tips, guidelines and suggestions for navigating work holiday parties and other social events of the season where alcohol may be present and relapse a high risk.

Pressures to Drink and Alcohol Refusal

Knowing how to refuse alcohol at parties is an accessible skill that just requires a bit of planning and role-playing in preparation for two forms of social pressure to drink:

  • Direct social pressure when someone offers you a drink
  • Indirect social pressure when you are tempted to drink because others are drinking

In both cases, planning ahead of time is an important rule of thumb. Practicing how to respond to various scenarios in which the presence of alcohol is unavoidable is a big help. That requires first imagining particular situations in which you might encounter the invitation or temptation to drink, and then preparing a response. This chart provided by the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse is one helpful tool to facilitate the process of strategizing responses to various scenarios.

At a company holiday party, then, these situations might include the following:

  • Your colleague greets you from the cocktail line to ask what you’d like from the bar.
  • You sit down at your assigned table to find there are several bottles of wine on the table.
  • Your boss is about to give a champagne toast, and the only option coming around on trays are flutes filled with champagne.

In each of the above instances (and others) where you might encounter direct or indirect pressure to drink at a holiday party, preparing how you will respond in advance can help you navigate the situation more confidently and with less social anxiety in the moment.

In the above cases, then, what might an appropriate response look like for each of these scenarios? There’s no one right answer. What’s key is to choose a response that’s most comfortable for you, and to do some role-playing of your response with a therapist, sponsor or trusted family member or friend. For example:

  • When your colleague greets you from the cocktail line to ask what you’d like from the bar, you might say “Thanks, but no thanks,” and explain you’re currently more interested in the buffet line and will catch up with them later.
  • When you sit down to find there are wine bottles on the table, you might practice some breath work and redirect your attention to conversing with the people around you, taking an active interest in being present to them. When the wine comes around, you can politely refuse using one of the scripted responses in the section below.
  • When the champagne flutes are passed around, you might take one and raise it as a toast but not drink it. Or you might politely refuse and raise a glass of your favorite mocktail instead.

How to Say “No” to Alcohol

In scenarios when you encounter direct social pressures to drink, it will be important to script how you say “no” in advance. (This form from NIAAA can help you script more than one “no” to various invitations to drink.)

  • Clearly and simply
  • Without hesitation
  • With direct eye contact

Thankfully, you don’t have to make up a response on your own. Below are some simple, easy-to-remember answers you can say when someone offers you a drink:

  • “No thanks. I don’t drink.”
  • “Thanks, but I don’t drink for health reasons.”
  • “No thanks, but I could really use a (non-alcoholic beverage).” (This is the “suggest an alternate” approach.)
  • “No thanks … but how are you these days?” (This is the redirecting approach.)
  • “I have a soda, thanks.”
  • “I’m not drinking tonight.”
  • “I feel better when I don’t drink.”
  • “I’m driving and I don’t want to drink.”
  • “I have decided I don’t handle alcohol well.”
  • “My doctor told me not to drink.”
  • “I don’t like the way I feel the next day after I drink.”
  • “No, thanks. I’m on medication.”

Avoiding Pressures to Drink

For many in early recovery, the best way to deal with direct and indirect pressures to drink is to avoid these pressures altogether, by not attending a work holiday party or other event. This strategy can be the most sensible if you recognize you are still highly vulnerable to relapse triggers, for example. (And often within the first year of treatment, the vulnerability to relapse is highest.)

If you go this route, you may experience some negative feelings, such as sadness or resentment about missing out on the fun of the party because of your disease. Be mindful of these emotions and associated thoughts, and if/when they occur, try to reframe your perspective by introducing more positive, realistic thoughts about your choice. Pat yourself on the back for making the choice to take care of your health and sobriety, and take consolation that this party is one of many more that will come along, and that what may be a need now (avoiding the party) may not be next year or the following year, when you are stronger in your recovery.

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