How to stay sober and manage drinking during the holidays

5 tips to protect sobriety and ways to moderate drinking throughout the holiday season

Holiday time is often called “prime time” by the sober community. Starting with the Thanksgiving holiday and running through New Years, the season is full of both triggers and pressures to drink or use drugs. How can someone in recovery stay sober during the holidays? How can someone moderate their drinking if it’s becoming a concern? Is it possible to stop drinking during the holidays?

As we celebrate, there are office parties with colleagues and ones with our friends and neighbors where drinks are flowing. There’s not just temptation, but the awkward feeling and pressure to join in.

Family get togethers aren’t always like happy TV commercials and can be full of uncomfortable and stressful moments, and we turn to a drink to cope. Those cliche stories of the “Drunk Uncle” at the holiday dinner are based in an all too frequent reality. People come back home and fall in with old friends and fall right back into those old habits.

The holidays can also be a lonely time when people feel alienated and depressed and turn to drinking or drugs to fill the emptiness.

Maintaining sobriety during the holiday season can be a serious challenge for someone just starting their journey and even difficult for people who are well along. But there are millions of people who make it through, and you can too. The joy of the season is even better with the joy of sobriety. Sobriety is a gift you give to yourself, everyone you love, and everyone who loves you.

Many people who aren’t in recovery will reconsider their relationship to alcohol and substances during the holiday season and seek to moderate their use.

Read on for some tips to keep working your sobriety journey and some ways to moderate your drinking during the holidays.

How much do people drink during the holidays?

People drink more during the holidays, it’s just a fact. We know it from liquor sales. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, one quarter of the entire industry’s profits are made in just one month between Thanksgiving and New Years, and the industry is worth nearly $50 billion a year. There are increases in binge drinking everywhere.

The day before Thanksgiving has come to be known as “Blackout Wednesday” and it rolls all the way through New Years Eve. Police step up patrols as drinking violations jump as much as 33% compared to the rest of the year.

Some will justify the excesses and indulgences of the season with the thought that they’ll tone it down or abstain in the new year, making resolutions or participating in Dry January. Others may face consequences that require them to reexamine their relationship with alcohol and drugs.

5 Tips to stay sober during the holidays

It’s been said that alcohol is the one drug people have to explain and justify not using to others. You know what you’re heading into from your past experiences. Empower yourself with these five tips and head into the holidays with confidence that you’re going to protect your sobriety from challenges.

  1. Make a plan

    You need a plan to protect your sobriety. This includes a master plan that will run all season long that includes smaller plans for predicted situations and some contingency plans if you need to adapt. Let’s say you’re going to attend a party or family gathering where the alcohol will be flowing and you know you’re going to be tempted.

    • Find and attend a meeting beforehand. It’s really hard to drink after listening to people’s stories about their struggles and victories. Here’s a list of virtual meetings you can jump online or call into. Some are open 24/7.
    • Invite a sober friend along with you as your +1. The buddy system works.
    • Set a time limit that you’re going to be somewhere that’s stressful or going to have difficult people present. And if they’re there, avoid them.
    • Be prepared to politely refuse alcohol and drugs when offered. You can just say, “I’m working on my health,” which is totally true. Or, you drove and need to be careful, which brings us to our next bullet:
    • Have an escape plan for when things get too hot to handle. This will include having your own transportation as well as a polite excuse for heading out. It could be something as simple as, “I have to go take care of something that just came up” – and that something is you and your sobriety.
    • This is a big one: Don’t put your drink down and get your own drinks. You don’t want to pick up the wrong drink by mistake and getting your own drinks means you know what’s in them. People often bring alcohol to parties as gifts or to contribute, only to end up drinking it themselves. Bring something non alcoholic to drink with you.

  2. Avoid triggers and traps

    As you make your plan, it’s a good idea to make a list of your known triggers so you’re not surprised. You’ve likely already explored some of these in your recovery program, but there are some extra special things that can center around holiday traditions.

    Don’t feel pressured to go to a party or event if you don’t feel up to it. It’s perfectly fine to give yourself a pass and skip a year. This is one of the best things to do if you’re in early recovery. You can’t drink if there isn’t something to drink within reach. During the holidays, there are a number of sober groups like AA and NA and SMART Recovery that have parties.

    The people closest to you, family members and trusted friends who know you’re in recovery, will be there to support you. Stay in communication with your loved ones. They want you to make it. You’re not alone.

  3. Keep up your self-care and recovery routines

    The holidays turn all schedules upside down, but now is the time to honor your commitment to yourself and your recovery. You can still keep up with your program even if you’re travelling for an extended period of time.

    Stay on schedule with your meetings and therapy sessions. Your therapist may offer a telehealth option if you aren’t in an all-digital recovery program like Affect’s that can be accessed from anywhere via your phone. You can call into or attend online meetings for various AA, NA, and other 12-step groups, and find a meeting to attend in the town you’re visiting.

    One of the best things you can do is just take a walk when things get tough. Keep exercising, journaling, meditating and doing all the things that are part of your routine. The challenges and missions in Affect’s app are a great way to keep yourself working your program all the time, any time and you don’t need to be enrolled in the program to use them. You’re building healthy habits to replace your old toxic ones. Keep at it and keep busy.

  4. Keep busy by doing things for others

    One of the best ways to keep busy is by helping others. It’s the season for sharing and caring, there is no shortage of ways to volunteer and help people. Being of service to others is one of the best ways to stop focusing on your own troubles. Lending a helping hand to those in need shows you your own strength and the value you can offer to the world.

    Look for ways to help in community kitchens or homeless shelters, toy drives, or with charities. You can help with your local recovery groups. You can also just help one person at a time, adding a goal to your recovery program to find someone each day to do an act of kindness. You’ll feel the true warmth and goodness of the holidays every time you give something of yourself to help another and take another step away from the fears, resentments, and negative self-image your addiction has created.

  5. Come up with a new holiday story

    For almost everyone, the holidays are hardly the way they’re depicted in commercials and movies, or the way people present them on social media sites. Past experiences and traumas from holidays can resurface and our own expectations for how the holidays will go can be our enemy in the battle for our new sober life.

    You’re writing a new chapter in your life story and now is the perfect time to explore, unpack, and start to resolve issues that may be haunting you like the ghosts of Christmas past. This can lead you to a feeling of empowerment and more control. Talk with your counselor or therapist or sober friends about those childhood experiences or the times in your drinking life that became dark. As you explore resentments, shame, or guilt you can break down the barriers to forgive others and yourself.

    It might seem hard, but those feelings and memories will create stress and negative emotions that will lead to a relapse if they’re not addressed. When you do, you’ll find a sense of gratitude and strength. It’s time for your personal holiday movie to have its happy ending.

In the grand scheme, any holiday is really just another day and recovery is a journey everyone takes one day at a time. Sobriety doesn’t take a holiday. We manage our substance use disorders every day. We don’t think of addiction as a weakness, we think of recovery as a strength. Substance use disorders are chronic conditions, not much different from something like diabetes. Just as a diabetic needs to pass on the cookie platter to stay healthy and manage their condition, people in recovery need to pass on the bar.

How to moderate drinking during the holidays

If you’re not in recovery but may be concerned about your level of consumption of alcohol or drugs and want to moderate your use during the season of excess and binging, the guidance is much the same as how to maintain sobriety – make a plan, avoid triggers and trouble, keep busy, find other ways to celebrate. There are some other things you may consider.

  • Set goals and track yourself

    Setting goals and sticking to them is the key to moderation. The goal is up to you. You may chose to not drink on certain days, limit yourself to a certain number of drinks over a period of time, or for an evening out. Be honest with yourself and hold yourself accountable. Also, pay attention to the size of the drink you’re having to be accurate about how much you’re consuming. You can keep a journal to track your drinks, but there are also apps that can help you monitor and track your drinking. Then, look back and assess how you’re doing. If you’re having a problem keeping to your goals, that’s a moment you’ll want to reflect upon.

  • Don’t drink alone or keep alcohol in the house

    Drinking alone to the point of getting drunk is a “red flag” of a substance use problem. If you’re trying to moderate your drinking, limit your access and don’t keep a convenient supply around. Having to go out to get a drink is a moment to pause and reflect and reconsider the choice. If you’re finding yourself wanting a drink to deal with a stressful day, using alcohol as a coping mechanism is another red flag of a problem with substance use. You’re not a social drinker if you’re drinking alone.

  • Don’t refill your glass before it’s empty

    You can’t track your drinks if you’re always topping off your glass. When you’re at that party where the drinks are flowing, finish your drink so you have a complete and accurate count. And then, take a look at the next tip.

  • Alternate your drinks with non-alcoholic ones

    It may seem obvious, but it is the key to moderation and pacing yourself. Give your body time to metabolize the alcohol, drinks can be quite a bit stronger during this time of year. And you may find you actually enjoy yourself more. You certainly will feel better the next day.

  • Remember to HALT

    HALT is an acronym for “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.” If you’re feeling any of these, you’ll want to avoid situations and events with alcohol or drugs. Your mental state is vulnerable and your body is weak. Some people don’t eat to save the calories for the party, including those in alcoholic beverages – a recipe for disaster that can also be a signal of an eating disorder.

It’s not necessary to drink to enjoy and celebrate the holiday season. While it is true that people do drink more during the holidays, people who drink a lot may not realize that a large portion of the population don’t drink very much or even not at all. 30 percent of American adults don’t drink, and the top 20 percent consume the majority of all alcohol, with the top ten percent consuming as much as 74 drinks a week. 20 million Americans have Alcohol Use Disorder, and only 1 in 13 people get the help they need.

How do I stop drinking during the holidays?

With all of these pressures and easy access, the holidays are a time when many people bottom out and realize they have lost control. Sobriety dates during the holiday season and early January are very common compared to other times of the year.

There are all kinds of stories about that moment of clarity when people awaken to the reality of their addictions during the holidays. It could be a fight in the family, or an embarrassing incident at a party, or an accident while driving, among many more. You may not experience a hard bottom, but you may have tried to manage your drinking during the season and discovered that you couldn’t do it.

Can you stop drinking during the holidays? The answer is a resounding yes. Countless people have made the commitment to a new way of life free of alcohol and drugs during the holiday season.

But, it’s very difficult to do it alone. And stopping drinking suddenly when someone has been drinking excessively can be life threatening, so getting professional help with medical assistance to help with withdrawal is more than just a good idea.

Fortunately there is help available that works and you can give yourself and your loved ones the gift of sobriety this holiday season. It really is the gift that keeps on giving.