A Proactive Approach to Holiday Stress

November 22, 2023

A Proactive Approach to Holiday Stress

We plan so much when it comes to the holiday season, but often take a reactive approach to the stress that comes with it. Whether it’s difficult family dynamics, loneliness, financial pressure or staying sober, added stress is hard for everyone - but particularly difficult for those in recovery from substance abuse. We recently spoke with HAMSA Program Manager Joel Dworkin about how to anticipate and work through it.

When it comes to navigating the holidays, first and foremost, “cut yourself some slack,” advises Joel. “You’re probably not going to do the holidays ‘perfectly,’ and that’s ok. There’s a lot we can do to anticipate what we might need during the season, and provide it for ourselves, in the same way a loving parent would.”

Being proactive is key, says Joel. “Often in recovery, we will use (substances) when we are reacting to a difficult situation,” says Joel. “If we anticipate what might derail us, we can put up guardrails for ourselves, in love.” In the same way a parent would make sure their child has his or her needs anticipated, we can learn to show ourselves the same sort of care.

When it comes to caring for ourselves, first remember HALT, an acronym for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. These four feelings can be triggers for addictive behaviors and can often be mitigated with planning. Eating regular meals and snacks, exercising and processing feelings of anger, actively being social and avoiding isolation, and getting regular sleep can all be powerful tools to meet our physiological needs.

Emotional needs can be anticipated ahead of time by thinking out the actions we can take, should difficulty arise. If it’s the first holiday season around people who don’t understand recovery, come up with a script to answer difficult questions. Anticipate ways to change the subject if the conversation gets uncomfortable. Give yourself permission to leave a gathering if you need to. Remember whose feelings you’re responsible for (yours) and whose feelings you’re not (everyone else’s.)

Building a support system is also key for dealing with emotional stress. Anticipate that there will be difficult moments and have conversations with safe people ahead of time so that when the need arises, you will have someone to call. Don’t underestimate the power of a “friendsgiving” or similar gathering: “Surround yourself with people you love spending time with and care about,” says Joel. “Find outlets to feel good. There are probably others in your circle who would welcome gathering in that way, too.”

When seeking connection, beware of synthetic connection in the form of social media. While it’s a useful tool, Joel cautions that using social media leads to “comparing how you feel to how other people appear, or comparing your insides to other peoples’ outsides.” Sometimes, taking a break from social media during particularly triggering seasons can be helpful.

Finally, and importantly, celebrate your wins on purpose. If you got through Thanksgiving without fighting about politics with Uncle Steve, celebrate that! If you made excellent mashed potatoes, amazing. If getting through the season without using substances is all you can muster, let that be enough.

“Be proud of what you do well,” says Joel, “and give yourself room to grow, too.”

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