The holidays can feel like a minefield for those in recovery. More-so than other times of the year, disastrous dynamics go hand-in-hand with the celebrations of the season. For this noteworthy reason, partners and addicts alike can benefit from preparing themselves for the inherent holiday challenges by understanding the following recipes for relapse and recovery. May these compelling reminders provide guidance for all who hope to maintain momentum, increasing their experiences of joy, peace, and lasting connection throughout the holidays.
Recipes for Relapse
The holidays often contain plentiful triggers for both partners and addicts. There can be triggers related to specific days and places that remind them of past addiction or trauma. Being around family can also be triggering, whether it comes through family drama or reminders of past losses. New or different environments can also be triggering to those in recovery, especially when the “drug of choice” is suddenly made available. Additionally, the attitude of indulgence that often accompanies the holidays can be triggering, leading to “all or nothing” that increases addictive and self-defeating behaviors.
Addiction thrives in disorder and disorganization. The “structure” of recovery (i.e. healthy habits, minimization of triggers, accountability, meetings, etc) offers safety for those striving not to slip. Jim LaPierre, LCSW, shares that “abstinence requires structure, habits, and routines” and “there are very few things in this world that are more dangerous than an addict with too much time on their hands.” Time off work and/or school combined with little to no responsibility can be disorienting for those in recovery. Boredom, dismissing recovery routines, and feeling an overall lack of constraint can quickly lead addicts to preoccupation and acting out.
The majority of popular American holidays have a large sugar component. Whether in the plethora of pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving, the convenience of Christmas candies, or the excess of Easter sweets, sugar is significant. In my past article called The Scary Side of Sugar: The Trick of Treats, I shared why “consuming a high sugar diet” is a “primary relapse trigger for all recovering addicts”. Self-control is helpful for both addicts and partners, yet increased impulsiveness is the result of high sugar consumption. Additionally, using food to cope with the many holiday stressors may offer temporary comfort but does not result in the connection (with self and others) that is intrinsic in successful recovery.
Recipes for Recovery
Self-care is inseparable from successful recovery and the holidays are no exception. While there is an obvious vacation from regular schedules and responsibilities, there is never a “vacation” from essential recovery routines. Maintaining habits that strengthen the brake system of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex) results in an infusion of strength and self-control. Sleep, exercise, healthy eating, and meditation all have this empowering effect in the brain. Making time for relaxation and the enjoyment of fun activities is not only essential for recovery but also for experiencing the joys of living. Making food choices help avoid crashes and promote consistent energy is also helpful self-care. Starting with morning inspiration and ending with healthy evening decompression will be especially important. All of these self-care practices create needed structure and will aid in sustaining recovery throughout the holiday season.
Strength and stability are rooted in connection. Reaching out to one’s accountability team, spouse or partner, friends, sponsor, and Higher Power can help those in recovery stay grounded, managing emotions and other triggers.
Connection to self is also vital. Self-connection through the practice of self-compassion is highly recommended because of its effectiveness in managing shame, trauma, and emotional suffering. While maintaining these connections are especially helpful for relapse prevention, they can also help those in recovery recommit quickly after a perceived mistake or slip before the behaviors escalate (see Recovering from Relapse for a recommended relapse routine).
It is impossible to be mindful and compulsive simultaneously. Those in recovery may find themselves in diverse and unexpected circumstances and mindfulness helps protect against unhelpful reactivity. “Surfing the Urge” is a great tool that stops overreaction to inner turmoil and the impulsive indulgence of cravings. Being mindful of both your external environment and your internal landscape (ie feelings, triggers, cravings, etc) will help both partners and addicts make wiser choices and more fully enjoy each moment (click here for a great article on mindful eating).
Staying committed over the holidays will require focused, sustained effort. Baking up the recipes for recovery may initially appear burdensome. While it will be time-intensive, those who invest in these strategies will experience just the opposite. This much-needed structure promotes true freedom and enjoyment.
Keeping in mind the purpose of these strategies and their personal reasons for staying committed will help those in recovery remain on track with their goals. This proactive approach to surviving the holidays will likely result in refreshment, energy, joy, and connection. Those who practice these principles will savor the satisfying aroma of accomplishment, with an acute awareness that they cooked up something meaningful in the midst of challenging conditions.
Happy Holidays from LifeSTAR of the Central Valley!
-Written by Forest Benedict, MA, SATP-C, LMFT, Clinical Director of LifeSTAR of the Central Valley If you benefited from this article, please “follow” us on this blog and on Twitter, “like” us on Facebook, and SHARE this article and blog with others. Thank you!