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Alcoholism During the Holidays: 7 Ways to Prevent Relapse

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Holidays can be a difficult time for people in recovery from alcohol use disorder (AUD). A person with alcohol addiction issues may suffer a relapse and return to drinking while on vacation from school or work.1 Learn more about how holidays and vacations can affect people who have a history of alcohol misuse.

In this article:

The Risks of Holiday Drinking

In the United States, celebrations are often an opportunity for social drinking.2 Holidays and vacations frequently include traditions around alcohol. During celebrations, people may drink far more than usual. As a result, most states experience a sharp rise in alcohol-related accidents around major holidays. Thousands of revelers face arrest or injury due to drunk driving.3 Others slip, fall, or cut themselves while intoxicated. 3

DUI rates spike during the summer holidays, Christmas, and the New Year.3,4 During the summer holidays, many people suffer injuries as a result of social drinking. Barbecues or fireworks displays can be risky when operated by people who have used alcohol. Using a grill, lighter, or explosives while intoxicated can lead to severe burns.

Anyone who drinks could be at a higher risk for injury during their holidays. But people with addiction disorders are in special danger. People in recovery often relapse while on vacation.1 If you’re traveling or staying in a hotel, you may find yourself tempted to drink. Many travels develop a “vacation mindset” and indulge in binge eating, binge drinking, and gambling. The rate of alcohol-related ER visits increased by almost 50% from 2006 to 2014 even though the number of people who drink alcohol remained approximately the same, leading researchers to believe that a subset of people who misuse alcohol are doing so in significantly higher amounts. 5

Vacationers might also swim while intoxicated, which can lead to accidental drowning.6 Even people who have no history of alcohol misuse may find themselves tempted to make unsafe decisions.

For people struggling with addiction, staying sober during the holidays can be especially difficult. The holidays can trigger feelings of stress, trauma, and restlessness. People with AUD sometimes feel tempted to use alcohol to help them relax, to distract themselves from stressful social situations, or to fall asleep. But for someone who already has an AUD, one drink may lead to more.7

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Planning can help you avoid a relapse. Review the following tips to learn how to protect your sobriety during the holidays.

1. Create a Sobriety Support Team

Many people find it helpful to attend extra recovery meetings, such as peer support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), during the holidays. A support group, outpatient rehab program, or therapist can provide useful guidance. Your support team can help you prepare for situations where you might encounter alcohol.

Many recovery groups prepare a holiday phone list or provide numbers for a crisis helpline. Group members can reach out for immediate support if they feel tempted to drink. You might also have holiday access to a peer mentor or sponsor, therapist, or crisis hotline. Ask your care team or home recovery group what resources are available. Your support system can help you stay focused on recovery and hold yourself accountable.8

Consider reaching out to a trustworthy family member or friend and making them part of your support team too. Loved ones can play a critical role in helping a person stay sober. 9 Many people in recovery find it useful to recruit a helper for moral support. Your helper can accompany you to parties and events. They can arrange activities that don’t involve drinking and run interference with other people who might ask about your recovery.

2. Look for Volunteer Opportunities

You may choose to spend your holidays volunteering at churches or nonprofit organizations to keep yourself intentionally busy and away from venues where alcohol is served. This practice serves a dual purpose: volunteering can help fill your calendar during the holidays and help you practice gratitude.

You may experience complicated feelings about staying abstinent from alcohol during the holidays, such as missing the comradery of social drinking, feeling left out, or feeling resentful that you cannot use alcohol to cope as you might have previously. Volunteering can help you focus on the positives. Serving others might also remind you why you chose to pursue sustainable sober.10

Studies show that volunteer work improves your physical and mental health. People who volunteer live longer and report a higher quality of life. They also tend to be more social. Frequent volunteers have a larger number of friends and a more robust support system.10 If you tend to feel lonely and isolated during the holidays, volunteering may help.

3. Arrange for Nonalcoholic Beverages in Advance

If you plan to attend a party or event where alcohol will be served, plan out your strategy in advance. You might find it helpful to carry a glass of soda water or a soft drink. If you have a drink in hand, other partygoers are less likely to offer you alcohol. Enjoying a nonalcoholic beverage can also help you feel like part of the celebration. 11

If you feel comfortable, consider providing an alcohol-free “mocktail,” nonalcoholic wine or beer, or asking the host to make a virgin version of mixed drinks being served so you have options that don’t make you feel singled out.

Sometimes, people in recovery struggle with nosy friends or family. Family members might make the situation more difficult by lecturing, scolding, telling stories about things that happened before you became sober, or asking awkward questions. If you suspect that another guest will ask why you’re not drinking alcohol, prepare a response that works for you. 12 Your responses could include:

  • I’m the designated driver
  • I’m planning to swim or play a sport after this and I want to be on my A game
  • I’m finishing a round of antibiotics or taking a new medication
  • I’m babysitting and need to be alert
  • I’m lactating, pregnant, or trying to become pregnant
  • I recently entered alcohol addiction recovery—I’m happy to talk to you about my experience some time in private

You can make up an excuse or be honest. Many people find it easier to respond in the moment if they are not lying. If you feel this way, make plans to be the designated driver or to watch a friend’s children after the event. Then you can give a valid excuse without any hesitation.

This is the type of situation where you may need your helper to step in. Your loved ones can help discourage these questions or distract the questioner. They can also make sure that plenty of nonalcoholic beverages are available.

4. Avoid Risky Situations

During holidays or vacations, you might get invited to an event that involves heavy drinking. If you suspect that you might feel invited to or tempted to drink, your first line of defense is to decline the invitation. Many people in the early stages of recovery avoid celebrations that involve alcohol. Some choose to avoid risky situations even after they’ve been in recovery for years.12

Keep in mind that the holidays can be stressful for anyone.7 Family events sometimes involve arguments, intrusive questions, or social pressure. You may need to distance yourself from these events to protect your sobriety. Prioritize your wellbeing and make up an excuse for your absences. If you’re not sure how to decline an invitation, your therapist or sponsor can help. If you need somewhere else to go, make real plans to celebrate the holiday with sober friends or to attend an AA meeting.

5. Stay Busy

Holidays and vacations can involve a lot of downtime. If you have nothing planned, you might find yourself more vulnerable to relapse. Staying busy during holidays can provide a distraction. A busy schedule also provides a convenient excuse for abstaining from alcohol.

If you’re going on vacation, prepare your itinerary in advance. Make a plan to visit local museums or sign up for outdoor activities. During holidays, volunteer to help prepare meals or decorations. Offer to run errands or go for a bike ride. Keep your schedule filled with activities that you genuinely enjoy.

Don’t forget about recovery meetings. Support groups often schedule round-the-clock meetings during the holidays. Recovery meetings provide a safe retreat and they can help fill up your day or provide critical support if you are feeling triggered and in danger of relapse.

6. Practice the Buddy System

People in recovery groups often pledge to accompany each other to parties or events. Taking a buddy to parties can provide you with extra accountability. Your buddy can also provide compassion, support, and gentle understanding.

Support is essential for people in recovery. Studies show that people with a robust support system are more likely to remain sober.13 If you have a loved one who has struggled with addiction, reach out during the holidays. Your loved one may need reassurance or companionship. Recovery can be lonely and isolating, especially during the holiday season. Try not to let your loved ones spend the holidays by themselves. Instead, join them in sober activities and offer to visit if they choose to skip parties that involve drinking. You may choose to attend support group meetings together.

7. Choose Sober Alternatives to Traditional Holiday Events

If you or a loved one are in recovery, set up sober events ahead of time. Create a game plan before the holiday and try to plan several activities that don’t involve alcohol. Trying unfamiliar activities may require the family to step outside their comfort zone, but they’re a great way to create new traditions.

You may want to try:

  • Mini-golfing
  • Hiking
  • Scavenger hunts
  • Craft projects
  • Baking cookies
  • Board-game tournaments
  • Coffee tastings
  • Clothing swap
  • Food drives
  • Bowling

Summer holidays are a great time to try new outside activities. Consider setting up outdoor games, such as badminton or cornhole. Your family may also decide to go for nature walks or try bird-spotting. You can even set up a competition. Try awarding a prize to the person who spots the most birds or collects the most plant specimens.

Remember that heavy drinking can be dangerous, even for people with no addiction disorders. Heavy drinking increases your risk of progressive health conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer.14 Some research has shown that alcohol may increase your risk of certain types of dementia.15 Reducing the amount of alcohol you use offers significant health benefits, even for moderate drinkers. Shifting to alcohol-free celebrations can improve the health of your entire family and protect against accidents. Sober celebrations also provide recovering family members with a safe, supportive environment.

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If you or a loved one relapses during the holidays, a recovery group could help you get back on track. Rehab and support groups help patients cope with a relapse. They also provide support to families who feel overwhelmed by their loved one’s addiction. Medical support can help patients overcome their addiction and achieve long-term sobriety.16

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  1. Melemis, S. M. (2015). Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 88(3), 325–332.
  2. Kushnir, V., & Cunningham, J. A. (2014). Event-Specific Drinking in the General Population. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 75(6), 968–972.
  3. Miami-Dale County. Safety Tips: Driving During the Holidays.
  4. United States Department of Transportation. Driving Drunk or High Puts Everyone in Danger.
  5. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2018). NIH study shows steep increase in rate of alcohol-related ER visits.
  6. Center for Disease Control. (2021). Drowning Facts | Drowning Prevention.
  7. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration. Recognizing Holiday Triggers of Trauma.
  8. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration. National Helpline.
  9. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition).
  10. Yeung, J. W. K., Zhang, Z., & Kim, T. Y. (2017). Volunteering and health benefits in general adults: cumulative effects and forms. BMC Public Health, 18(1).
  11. S. National Library of Medicine. Helping a loved one with a drinking problem. MedlinePlus.
  12. National Institute of Health. (2019). Building your drink refusal skills. Rethinking Your Drinking.
  13. Guenzel, N., & McChargue, D. (2019, December 8). Addiction Relapse Prevention. StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.
  14. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). CDC – Fact Sheets – Alcohol Use and Your Health – Alcohol.
  15. Rehm, J., Hasan, O. S. M., Black, S. E., Shield, K. D., & Schwarzinger, M. (2019). Alcohol use and dementia: a systematic scoping review. Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy, 11(1).
  16. Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. Recovery: The Many Paths to Wellness.
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