Is Addiction Relapse More Common During The Holidays?

The holiday season can be a joyful as well as a stressful time for anyone. For alcoholics and addicts in recovery though, holidays are commonly thought of as a time when addiction relapse happens more frequently. Is there any truth to this belief?

Holiday Addiction Relapse Statistics

When it comes to Holiday addiction relapse, what do the actual statistics say? A study performed by Mark Goldman and colleagues that was published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors sought to track young adult drinking for a full 52 weeks. They then plotted the data and showed that there was a marked increase in drinks taken on Thanksgiving and an even more dramatic increase on New Year’s Eve. There was a small spike right before Christmas as well (Goldman M. et al., PsycholAddict Behav. 2011 Mar; 25(1): 16–27.).

The study is available online here, but what does this information mean for alcoholics? First of all, this study was done with a wide cross-section of young adults, meaning that there were just as many non-addicted or non-recovering participants involved. So if there is such a marked increase in alcohol consumption amongst the general population, even those who do not have drinking problems, there is a definite higher risk for those who already struggle with maintaining abstinence.

Drunk Driving Statistics

There is also an increase in alcohol-related fatalities on the road during this time. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that about 36 fatalities on average occur each day as a result of inebriated drivers. This number jumps to 45 per day around Christmas time and almost doubles to 54 during New Years. While these numbers are scary, they also send a strong message about alcohol and drug abuse during the holiday season.

Drop in Meeting Attendance

More anecdotal evidence comes from the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous during the holiday season. Beginning around Halloween, meetings will often get sparser and sparser, as participants stop showing up and start to relapse. Additionally, individuals who were in some form of drug addiction treatment might return home after a brief stay in rehab and start using drugs again. While it is difficult to get a statistical breakdown of these relapse rates, it is obvious to anyone who has been sober and attending meetings for a period of time. Usually, a little after the New Year, the rooms will begin filling up again, with many new members but also individuals who are coming back from a relapse that took place over the holidays. Why does this happen though?

Holiday Festivities

There are a few different reasons for the phenomenon and the way that it affects alcoholics and addicts in recovery. One challenging part of the year for many in recovery is the prevalence of alcohol-centered festivities and parties. It is quite common and definitely socially acceptable for workplaces to throw alcohol-fueled holiday parties, where many employees will participate. For someone who is newer in addiction recovery, this can be an uncomfortable experience. Wanting to fit in and feel a part of is a common theme for many alcoholics, especially when they are new to the recovery process and just beginning to make the internal changes that are necessary in order to stay sober. This kind of social pressure can easily lead to relapse when someone is not spiritually equipped to deal with it.

There are also pressures from family and friends outside of the workplace. It can be tempting for an alcoholic to watch family and friends drink or engage in drug use with seeming impunity, and have a great time while they are doing it. Again, the large number of holiday celebrations taking place are often centered around this and can be very taxing for those new in recovery. Even individuals with more time sober can be caught off guard more easily if they are not making sure to take care of themselves and utilize their recovery program.

Family Stresses

The potentially volatile holiday season also brings with it a lot of contact with family, which can be very emotional for some. Most families of alcoholics have some emotionally charged memories that are not all necessarily positive from the holidays. Being around family before the relationships have been amended and renewed can take a lot out of alcoholics (and non-alcoholics alike!), so turning toward alcohol or drugs for a release is not uncommon.

There are also expectations that come with family during the holiday season, and this can be difficult for alcoholics to manage if they are not taking care of themselves as well. Feeling the need to provide financially extravagant gifts, meet the life expectations of family members, or having an idea of how another member of their family should behave can all take an emotional toll on an alcoholic or addict and in turn, trigger them.

Dealing With Addiction During The Holidays

It does not have to be all doom and gloom though. While there are a lot of potential pitfalls that come up surrounding the holiday season, there are also a lot of strategies that can be employed to make it through the holidays safe and sober. In fact, for many alcoholics and addicts in recovery, the holidays can be a truly magical and memorable experience.

Recovery Comes First

For that to happen though, recovery has to come first. One of the most important things to remember is maintaining a connection to a sober support network throughout all of the festivities. If an alcoholic or addict participates in a 12-step program, it is crucial to keep attendance at meetings frequent. Letting off the gas pedal because of all the outside distractions that the holidays bring is one of the worst things that someone in recovery can do. Staying involved with the sober community can be a vital part of an individual’s relapse prevention plan.

Stay Connected

Keeping in close contact through the use of phones is another way to cope with the increased stresses of the holidays. Calling one or two individuals in recovery every day can go a long way, especially if an individual is on a trip, or visiting family outside of their regular recovery community. Making verbal commitments to other alcoholics to call one another if things begin to get uncomfortable can also provide a great exit strategy from parties and events that begin to make someone uneasy.

Staying Sober Through Service

Out of all these strategies though, service, the one most in line with the holiday spirit, is perhaps the most effective. For alcoholics and addicts, the holidays can be turned into an amazing experience through service to others. It is hard to think about oneself and one’s own problems when actively helping and giving to others, and the holiday season provides ample opportunity to do this. Participating in food drives, toy drives, serving food to the less fortunate, or volunteering in one of the many other ways available during the season has a huge positive impact on one’s own spiritual condition.

Addiction Relapse Doesn’t Have To Happen

While the holidays can be a tumultuous time for alcoholics and addicts in recovery, they can also be amazing. Addiction relapse does not need to be a part of the story, and if there is a little attention paid to keeping current with one’s own recovery, the holidays can be memorable and powerful experiences that are looked back on with fondness for years to come. Oftentimes, individuals will experience a mental relapse before they actually go out and use drugs again. This is largely due to separating from their sober support group and not putting their recovery first. When difficult times, triggers, and drug cravings pop up, the most important thing an alcoholic can do is make a call and air out their grievances with another alcoholic.

What to do After a Relapse

If a relapse occurs during the holidays or at any other time, it is important to act fast and get back on the right track. For those that struggle with a substance use disorder, the moments and days right after a relapse are extremely volatile. Intense feelings of guilt and shame are likely to push people further away from their support groups and deeper into substance abuse. In order to prevent the destruction of their life, it is vital to get into action. Knowing what to do after a relapse can drastically improve the chances of an individual returning to recovery.

Getting Back to Recovery

After a relapse, it is important to get into action right away. This may look different from person to person, however, individuals may benefit from returning to a treatment program. While this course of action may not be ideal, especially if someone has been through addiction treatment in the past, it can potentially save their life. Whether this is the first time someone has relapsed, or another instance in a constant string of relapses, exploring treatment options can provide a sense of hope.

Perhaps something was missed during a prior experience in treatment which led them back to a drink. If relapse has been a part of recovery for you or a loved one, it doesn’t have to be anymore. Sober living programs provide a safe and supportive environment where individuals struggling with substance use disorders receive the help they need to overcome addiction and work through any underlying mental health conditions. New Life House has been helping young men recover and achieve long-term sobriety since 1985. Call us today to learn more about our structured sober living in Los Angeles.

Last Updated on February 22, 2024


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