Making it Through the Holidays with Addiction and/or Mental Illness

No matter where you are in your sobriety or mental health journey, the holidays won't make the urges to turn to your addiction or make the symptoms of your mental illness go away.  Social media and television portray holiday parties and family gatherings as wonderful, fulfilling, stress-free times.  In fact, they are just the opposite.  For an addict or someone who struggles with mental illness, the stress of the holidays can be the trigger to bring even someone who has gotten more healthy into going back into old behaviors. 

I'm not a doctor or therapist but I did some online research to try to find any tips that might help during this difficult time of year. 

Following are some suggestions that might help:

- BEFORE the holidays hit, make a plan.  Studies show that stress can bring long-dormant behavior back.  Get with your sponsor or another support person and plan for those stressful times.

- Remember that you aren’t alone.  We are all dealing with staying sober or living with mental health issues. If an addict, keep in mind that turning to your addiction is only a temporary fix.  Reach out to fellow addicts when you have a low moment.  If you are someone with mental illness, also reach out if you feel like you can't handle your symptoms.

Call someone - preferably a fellow addict or another person who deals with mental illness.  Keep phone numbers with you for those low moments when you want to drink, use, act out, or you just need someone to listen.    
Remember HALT - Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired – are common triggers.  Figure out ways to deal with them beforehand.  Remember that you need to get adequate sleep and nutrition through the chaos of the holidays.  Phone calls, meditation, escape, or distraction can help.  Slow down and don’t overbook yourself.

- Release resentments before going to family gatherings or parties. The #1 reason for relapse is due to resentment.  Before seeing the ones you may still have resentments against, get with your sponsor and try to work through some of those feelings.  If you aren't an addict, think about forgiving some of those that have hurt you before you deal with them.  Remember that forgiveness is much more about you than about the other person.

- “Bookend” events with planned calls.  Have someone call you before and after an event to check on you (and get you out of an event if needed).  Friends and family could be triggers and you might need help escaping or dealing with the stress.

- Have an escape plan.  Limit time in stressful situations.  Make sure you have a way to leave if needed (and that your car isn’t blocked in).

- Relax your standards.  Don’t compare yourself, your home, your party, your family… to others’.  Progress, not perfection.

- Avoid isolation.  If going out of town, before you leave, find support groups that you can attend while you are gone.  If you are alone and isolated, shame and boredom can make it harder to stay sober and more difficult to handle your mental illness.  If you are alone during the holidays, find people to be around.  Addicts... keep in touch with your sponsor and continue working your program.

- Don’t feel obligated to discuss your addiction or mental illness with friends and family.  However, just in case, be prepared with answers to uncomfortable questions.  Role-play conversations/interactions with a safe person if you feel they could be especially difficult.

- Serve others.  One of the best ways to be stay sober is to serve others.  For those with mental illness, if possible, try to put the focus on others' happiness instead of your own.  See how you can help at a family gathering or party.  Visit a shut-in.  Help serve food to the homeless.  Write letters to the military or those in prison. Take the family’s kids out for a treat.

- Make time for physical exercise. Exercise releases endorphins that can help.             


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