Recovery and The Holidays: Facing Thanksgiving Triggers

Gathering during holidays with family and friends can be a relaxing time of celebration and fellowship. Good conversation, delicious food, and the annual chance to reflect and share stories about what we are thankful for in life are typically things that bring enjoyment and happiness. For individuals dedicated to a path of life-long recovery, however, Thanksgiving gatherings may pose special risks in the form of triggers back toward unhealthy behaviors of the past. Understanding these unique challenges can help minimize the chance of a destructive relapse.

While big social gatherings present their own challenges, the feelings of isolation so often experienced by individuals in recovery may also intensify during the holiday season. Not having close friends or family members nearby — either due to physical distance or personal choice – may lead to boredom, which can be equally dangerous to people trying to resist the temptation to misuse drugs or alcohol. Consider hosting your own Thanksgiving potluck feast with other friends from recovery who may also be facing the holiday alone. Together, you can create new, healthier traditions.

Common unhealthy triggers at Thanksgiving may include:

  • Memories of painful holidays from the past
  • Fatigue from traveling long distances
  • Increased abundance of alcohol at social events
  • Long-term family tensions
  • Distance from our daily support system of friends in recover

Take extra steps to set yourself up for success. For example, get a massage or a manicure the day before you leave if you have to travel. Find an outfit for the event that you feel happy – and comfortable – wearing. Adding a small accessory or motivational bracelet you can look at during the event can lift your spirits and enhance your confidence if things feel difficult. Speak kindly to yourself as often as possible, and get extra sleep the week before. Eat as healthy a diet as possible, drink extra water, and get some additional exercise to ward off excess stress.

As the event approaches, ramp up your feelings of healthy empowerment by:

  • Role-playing a few answers to potentially difficult family questions with a friend you trust to help minimize your body’s natural stress response
  • Having an exit plan mapped out in advance in case you need to take an extended break from a conversation
  • Formulating strategies that help you relax in times of stress such as deep breathing and aromatherapy
  • Asking a friend in recovery to travel with you if your host doesn’t mind so that you feel supported and understood
  • Practicing a variety of ways of declining any invitations to drink or misuse alcohol or drugs while in front of a mirror until saying “no” feels more comfortable
  • Making time daily for activities that help you feel balanced and strong such as journaling, yoga, walking, meditation and spiritual practices
  • Talking with someone from your support system directly before and immediately after the gathering to help you sort out confusing feelings rather obsessing
  • Accepting the invitation to be with others for Thanksgiving dinner even if it feels a little scary at first to say “yes” rather than spending the holiday alone

The holiday season can be stressful for anyone, especially people in long-term recovery from alcohol and drugs. Facing Thanksgiving triggers can be scary, but having a plan and a support system in place can help ensure a healthy and happy holiday season.

Resources:

“Navigating Holiday Stress,” 2015 Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, December 2014

“Addiction during the holidays: Recovered or not, it’s important to be prepared,” Psychology Today, December 2010

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