Managing Stress and Sobriety Through the Winter and Holiday Season

Dec 14, 2016 by Dan Burris, MA LPCC LADC- Transform/Clinic Therapist

“Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house you could find enough booze to stock a warehouse.  The families and friends who said they’d help out, now openly party and  bandy about”.

Awe, the Holiday Season which packs full of friends, family, shopping, decorating, cooking, baking, parties, relatives, traditions, snow, and volunteering to name a few!  The holidays can be an emotional time for many people, but for those who have recently stopped drinking or using substances, navigating the holidays can be especially challenging.

What makes the Holidays so appealing for people is exactly what can make it tough for newly sober people to maintain sobriety.  People in general respond to cues surrounding them including people, places, and things.  Addictions have a lot to do with the dopamine reward system, and substance use disorder associates certain people, places and things with drinking or using a substance of choice, which they associate with feeling good, and that feeling drives their desire to drink or use a substance.

We hope you find these tips, actions, and behaviors helpful as you navigate the gauntlet called the Holiday Season and manage stress and sobriety and remain as happy as a “partridge in a pear tree!”

Know and respect your limits.

Don’t attempt to be superman or superwomen and take care of everything!  Pushing yourself beyond your limits can be a costly mistake.  This will leave you haggard, exhausted, stressed-out, anxious, depressed, and wanting to use substances to cope or for relief.  Maintain routine structure and balance to your day.  Ask for help.

Maintain healthy boundaries.

Perhaps you have always hosted the Holiday in the past, and maybe it’s time to set a new precedent.  When visiting family or relatives, you could have a plan, and support system in place.   This could include bringing a friend in recovery, setting a time limit for your visit, and stating you have other activities to attend.

Plan ahead and attend a schedule of support meetings.

If you are heading out of town, check local listings for AA/NA or other support meetings to plan on attending.  Also, keep a phone list handy in case you feel “triggered” to drink or use substances and you can call a friend or sponsor in recovery.

What better way to handle stress and keep the pot roast, spritz cookies, rosettes, sweet potatoes, and candy canes in moderation than to exercise!  If you’re a runner, Yogi, cyclist, walker, swimmer, or weightlifter….keep doing it through the Holiday Season.  Exercise provides an excellent release of stress, increase of natural endorphins, mental and emotional well-being.  It’s also a nice excuse to get away from the crowd and spend some peaceful time of self-care.

Recapture your childhood Elf.

Research indicates that happiness increases with experiences, rather than things.  Reconnect with a childhood tradition or make a new one.  Perhaps you could plan on going ice-skating, sledding, or snow-boarding.  The family could go see A Christmas Carol at the theatre.


Many people find a sense of purpose, reconnect to meaning, or just help others during the Holiday season.  Nothing increases a sense of self-worth, self-esteem, or self-efficacy as helping others, giving, or volunteering.  The recovery community is known for service work or giving back to others which in turn helps sustain one’s sobriety.

Dig Deep

If the above measures do not help lower stress and manage sobriety, and if you feel like “visions of 6-packs of beer, Old Fashions, Tom & Jerrys, Red Wine, white powder, champagne toasts or whacky weed are dancing in your head” then another option is to say the Serenity Prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference!”

Wishing you all a safe, happy and healthy Holiday Season!

Dan Burris and Andrea Grey work in the PrairieCare Edina Transform program.  An Intensive Outpatient Program for adults living with mental illness and chemical dependency.

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