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? Well, 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 populace, even those that do not have drinking problems, there is a definite higher risk for those that already struggle with maintaining abstinence.

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.

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. While it is difficult to get a statistical breakdown of this occurrence, it is obvious to see to anyone who has been sober and attending meetings for a period of time. Usually, a little after the New Years, 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 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 recovery 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 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 In 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.

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 of meetings frequent. Letting off the gas pedal because of all the outside distractions that the holiday bring is one of the worst things that someone in recovery can do.

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 other 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.

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. If you have any experience with family members or your own recovery during the holidays, we would love to hear about it in the comments section!

Last Updated on August 7, 2023


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