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The holidays can be a tough time for someone in recovery.
December 15, 2016

How to Help a Recovering Loved One Cope With Holiday Triggers

The holidays can be a tough time for someone in recovery.Christmas and the holidays can be a stressful time of year for anybody, but for those in recovery from drugs or alcohol (especially in early recovery), this reality can be compounded by higher risks of relapse. Environmental cues to drink or use drugs, in the form of work holiday parties, family reunions and other festive social gatherings, abound at this time of year. The holidays can also dredge up hard, sometimes traumatic memories and painful emotions that serve as internal triggers for substance abuse.

Such holiday triggers are also a source of worry and concern for close family members and friends, who wonder how to help their recovering loved one cope. This article will help to answer that question.

Knowing and Evaluating Relapse Triggers

First, it is important to be familiar with common relapse triggers and, if possible, those that are of greatest risk to a recovering loved one at this time of year. These can be people, places, and things, according to a popular way of classifying addiction triggers:

  • People who trigger an impulse to drink may include, for example: old drinking buddies; a physically or emotionally abusive parent or family member; a boss, person in authority or other person for whom a loved one wants to perform.
  • Places are situations or environments that elicit cues to drink or use drugs, and during the holidays these triggers can be especially common and hard to navigate: work holiday parties, family gatherings and other social events where alcohol is readily available and others are drinking are the most obvious example; but so are places like the old haunt a loved one used to frequent with drinking buddies.
  • Things can include both material and more intangible things, from something concrete like money—a Christmas bonus, for example—to difficult memories and emotions that drugs or alcohol once dulled. Anxiety and stress, a common addiction trigger, also fall within this category.

Of the above relapse triggers, certain ones will present bigger threats to a recovering loved one’s sobriety than others. A cognitive behavioral strategy known as the “Five W’s” (for “When,” “Where,” “Why,” “With” and “What”) can help determine specifically when, where, why, who and what triggers a loved one’s substance abuse.

It can also help to list the various holiday events or gatherings where alcohol or other drugs will be on offer and to evaluate whether these rank as low-risk, medium-risk or high-risk. (If your loved one is wiling, you can even do this exercise together.) Those that are medium-risk or high-risk are good to cross off by planning a fun, alcohol-free activity in their place.

For low-risk situations, it will still be important to have a plan in place for dealing with triggers. For example, in a situation that is unavoidable and that will involve the presence of alcohol, you might encourage your loved one to arrive early and leave early from the event.

Planning in Advance for Relapse Triggers

Planning in advance for relapse triggers is a critical step in coping with holiday triggers. Ultimately, you cannot plan for your loved one—they must find the motivation to plan and take responsibility for themselves—but you can ask them whether they have a plan in place and how you can help support their commitment to sobriety. If they do not have a plan in place, you can share your concerns that they do not have one. Be as gentle, direct and positive as possible when broaching the subject. For example, if you are aware that every Christmas Eve involves taking out the Scotch with extended family, you can ask your loved one how they plan to handle the situation and what you can do to support them.

Examples of how to support a loved one’s planning in advance might include:

  • Role-playing with them how they will decline offers of alcohol or other substances and reviewing key drug refusal skills
  • Having them pick their favorite non-alcoholic drink or mocktail so you can bring it or have it on hand
  • Encouraging your loved one to invite a friend whom they trust and who does not drink (someone from their 12-step group, for example) for the holidays or to the party
  • Choosing not to drink in solidarity with your loved one at a particular event
  • Letting them know you’re on hand if they suddenly feel they need a safe, quick getaway in a situation that has become dangerous to their health and sobriety

Avoiding Exposure to Relapse Triggers

One surefire way to overcome holiday relapse triggers is to avoid them altogether. In some cases, this strategy may not be feasible, but at other times, you can help a loved one cope with holiday triggers by offering a fun alternative. That may mean introducing a new holiday tradition in place of an old one or getting away for the holidays, by taking a trip to an entirely new place.

Connecting with a Loved One

Research has shown that one of the most persuasive cues to drink is what a person expects to feel when under the influence. In other words, however strong they might be, social and environmental cues are typically less important predictors of relapse than what a loved one may be feeling and internalizing at the time. Connecting and staying connected with your recovering loved one during the holiday season is thus critical. Below are some examples of what that might look like:

  • Checking in with them about how they are feeling in a potentially triggering situation
  • Noticing their body language and statements they make about themselves (for example, negative self-talk can suggest they are struggling with feelings of shame, guilt or depression that can raise their vulnerability to holiday triggers)
  • Setting aside quality time just to be with them and enjoy one another
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