How Families Can Help or Hurt Your Recovery This Holiday Season and What to DoAnna Ciulla
Will you be celebrating the holidays with family this year? If so, learn what three addiction triggers to watch for—and, how to manage them with your family’s help.
Your family can help or hurt your recovery. This reality is important to bear in mind at any time of the year— but especially during the holiday season, when, with Christmas and New Year’s just around the corner, many of us will be spending extended time with our families or attending family holiday parties.
Every family affected by an addiction is unique; every family system has its individual strengths, history and pathologies; and, the family dynamics of addiction can be complex and painful to navigate. That said, some general knowledge about how your family can help or hurt your recovery—including what you can do to invite the positive involvement of family in your recovery—can strengthen your recovery. On that note, this article will explore:
- Common family-related relapse triggers that could hinder your recovery this holiday season
- Ways that your family can support your recovery this holiday season
- What you can do to prepare for being around family this holiday season
Family and Addiction – 3 Biggest Relapse Triggers to Manage This Holiday Season
Research in the journal, Addiction, has shed light on the biggest and most common relapse triggers for people in recovery. Strikingly, many of these “high-risk situations” can involve family, and can be further aggravated by the added context of the holidays. By way of an illustration, “social pressure” is one big relapse trigger, accounting for 20 percent of relapse episodes. And even social pressure that is as subtle as “being around others who are drinking” can trigger relapse, according to the study authors.
Now add the holidays—a prime time for excess alcohol consumption—and the pressure to drink intensifies greatly. That’s illustrated by data from the group, Alcohol Monitoring Systems, which found that drinking violations by DUI offenders went up 33 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
“These individuals are being monitored every 30 minutes, and they know they’re going to be caught,” AMS Vice President Lou Sugo said, in an article in Statesman Journal. “You can imagine the [holiday] rate of drinking for those who aren’t being monitored.”
Only compounding the holiday pressures to drink are family holiday parties. 60% of those who attend family holiday parties said a family member behaved inappropriately after drinking too much alcohol, in a study cited in Psychology Today.
In addition to social and environmental pressures to drink, here are two other major relapse triggers to look out for and manage when you’re around your family this holiday season:
- Interpersonal family conflict (such as an argument with a loved one)
- Negative emotional states like anger, anxiety or depression (which can be brought on by unaddressed family issues and related to seasonal affective disorder)
In summary, the social pressures to drink (especially at family holiday parties), interpersonal family conflict and negative emotions are the three biggest, most common relapse triggers that you will want to be mindful of and find ways to manage this holiday season when you’re with family.
The Positive Role of Family in Relapse Prevention
Addiction is a family disease, because it both affects and is affected by one’s family of origin. Relapse triggers are one way that this principle manifests itself. Consequently, successful long-term recovery (as in lasting sobriety and resilience to relapse) depends to a great degree on addressing the family dynamics that are contributing to an addiction. In fact, research shows that when family members are involved in their loved one’s therapeutic process, their loved one achieves better recovery outcomes.
Take, for example, the primary concern at this time of the year, when drinking is at just about every holiday family gathering: relapse. What we now know is that relapse prevention therapy sessions are more effective at meeting their goal (resilience to relapse) when a recovering alcoholic has the active involvement and support of loved ones in that therapeutic process:
- 2010 findings in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs reported that six months following inpatient treatment, recovering alcoholics whose family participated in relapse prevention sessions with them were “significantly” more successful at fending off relapse than recovering alcoholics who did not have this help.
- Similarly, those in recovery from alcohol who received a short-term couples’ relapse prevention intervention (meaning their spouse received therapy with them) reportedly achieved “significant improvements” in recovery outcomes (namely, lower rates of relapse and happier marital adjustment). (These outcomes were monitored and measured over a period of 12 months.)
How Your Family Can Help Your Recovery – What You Can Advocate for
How, then, can your family help your recovery this holiday season? Here are some suggestions for how to advocate for help:
- Invite a spouse or close family member(s) whom you trust to take part in some relapse prevention counseling with an addiction-certified therapist. Together you can develop some relapse prevention strategies for handling any holiday-related family gatherings.
- Work with a family member you trust to come up with a plan for how to navigate each of the three big relapse triggers mentioned above (social pressures to drink, interpersonal conflict, and negative emotions).
- Educate yourself on what you most need in the way of help from family, by reading the Learning Center article, “How to Help a Recovering Loved One Cope With Holiday Triggers.” Then, invite a loved one you trust to read the article, too.
- Be in communication with your loved ones about what you need in order to stay sober. This may require saying you cannot be around any drinking or alcohol. At the very least, it’s important to be real about the fact that you need to minimize your exposure to alcohol as much as possible— and then plan in advance for any unavoidable situations where alcohol is on hand.
- Volunteer to plan and organize a sober holiday party or other event. Or, consider these other ideas for celebrating the holidays while in recovery.
What You Can Do to Prepare for Being Around Family Over the Holidays
In addition to advocating ahead of time for help from your family, there are some things you can do to prepare for being around family over the holidays:
- Minimize stress and get as much sleep as much as possible. Stress and fatigue are two common addiction triggers that can be more prevalent over the holidays. (A majority of Americans experience higher levels of stress and fatigue over the holidays, according to a 2006 report by the American Psychological Association.)
- Find healthy and constructive ways to manage any negative emotions in the lead-up to the holidays. Exercise is a great outlet. So is a peer support group. For more tips, check out “Finding Holiday Cheer by Managing S.A.D. in Recovery.”
- Keep your focus on what’s most important at this time of the year: connecting with the people you love in simple, authentic ways.