How to Avoid a Relapse During the Most Stressful Time of Year

When the holidays start to feel overwhelming, these tips will help you stay clean and sober.

A pensive woman looks at her coffee wondering how to avoid relapse and stay sober. She is thinking about relapse prevention. 

The holidays are meant to be a time of rest and enjoyment, surrounded by warmth and loved ones. But in reality, it tends to be a time of last-minute shopping and racing through crowded airports. 

“There’s an enormous pressure on us to have the holidays be like a Hallmark card: everyone getting along, everyone getting the best gifts and you having the perfect outfit for every event,” says Joel Holiner, MD, a psychiatrist specializing in addiction medicine at Medical City Green Oaks Hospital in Dallas Fort Worth, Texas. “That pressure makes the season stressful for everyone, but it can be especially difficult if you’re in recovery or you have a history of addiction.” 

Not only is your stress level higher at this time of the year, but you’re also suddenly faced with powerful triggers. Whether it’s running into high school friends, coworkers popping bottles in your office or having to spend time with judgmental relatives, the season can cause difficult emotions to resurface. 

Holiday relapse prevention tips 

This year, do the holidays on your own terms. Here are expert-approved tips for sidestepping triggers, coping with the stress and preventing a relapse. 

You’re in control of your social calendar 

“First off, there’s no event that you actually have to go to,” says Holiner. “You may feel obligated to attend a friend’s party or a family function, but if you know it’s a setup for relapse—based on the people who will be there or previous experiences at the same event—do everything you can to stay home.” 

It’s especially important to avoid high-risk situations during the early days of recovery, when your mind may still follow the pattern of craving substances when faced with stress. 

Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying that to stay sober, you need to change your playmates and your playpen,” says Holiner. Stay away from the friends with whom you used alcohol or drugs in the past and avoid triggering settings like areas of your hometown where you have painful memories. 

Bring your own 

Before sending in your RSVP, ask the family member or friend who’s throwing the party to make it a drug or alcohol-free event. Most people will respect your recovery process and serve alcohol alternatives. 

If you aren’t 100 percent sure that an event will be substance free, bring a holiday “mocktail” like a non-alcoholic mulled punch. Make it your contribution to the potluck or a gift for the host. That way, you can feel more comfortable turning down drink offers and even reciprocate with your own. 

Bring along a fellow sober person as well. If people bring alcohol or other substances without the host’s permission, you and your holiday buddy can enjoy each other’s company in an area away from the crowd. But don’t stick around if the party’s getting out of hand or you’re starting to feel tempted. 

Prepare your script 

“I think it's very reasonable when a person is trying to hand you a drink to tell that friend, coworker or even your boss, ‘I'm sorry, I've had a problem with drinking in the past and my doctor doesn't want me to drink at all.’ If you don’t feel like you could be open with the person, try a simple, ‘My doctor won’t let me drink because of a medical issue’—which is what addiction is,” says Holiner. 

Practice turning down offers ahead of each event. Think through the different scenarios you might encounter and say your responses out loud in front of the mirror until they sound confident. You could run through the lines with your sponsor or counselor, as well. 

Cope with holiday stress 

With everything that’s on your plate around the holidays, it’s typical for your schedule to change, including your counseling and support group days. But this is a time when you want to actually increase the number of meetings you go to and spend more time talking with your counselor, says Holiner. 

Around the holidays, we also find all kinds of excuses to stop taking care of ourselves—stress, busyness, saying, ‘it’s too cold out to exercise.’ But physical activity is one of the best ways to control stress and can keep relapses at bay. And it’s not just about fitting in exercise: Remembering to eat, skipping fattening holiday foods and getting enough sleep all reduce stress and protect your self-esteem—helping you to avoid a relapse, he adds. 

Taking care of yourself also means sticking to a routine. Schedule healthy activities like gym time and meal prep, along with enough counseling sessions and support group meetings. If you’re facing a high-risk situation in the near future, include a plan for how you’ll stay sober at that event: which people you’ll avoid, what time you’ll leave, how you’ll answer questions from nosy relatives, how you’ll help the host if you need a distraction. 

Another way to keep your stress level down? “Avoid setting unrealistic expectations for yourself,” says Holiner. “Let go of the pressure to create this perfect holiday. Stop overemphasizing the gifts, the decorating, the meals. Remember that the people matter most.” 

After the holidays 

When the excitement settles on January 2, it can feel like a bit of a letdown. If you’re no longer busy and your calendar is suddenly empty, it’s easy to become depressed—especially in the dead of winter. 

“I recommend making post-holiday plans, because after six to eight weeks of shopping, cooking, decorating, partying, it's hard to suddenly stop and not feel a big void in your life. Don't wait 364 days to start making plans and having fun again,” says Holiner. 

Sign up for a class you’ve always wanted to take or join a meet-up group that enjoys sober activities like hiking or cooking. It will give you something to look forward to and help to build healthy activities into your schedule. 

The holidays can be trying when you’re overcoming addiction, but if you follow these tips on how to prevent a relapse, you will get through them. Avoid high-risk situations, plan ahead and lean on your counselor or support group when stress starts to build.

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