The holiday season can be full of joy, love and connection with friends and family.
But for many in recovery, the holidays can also be a difficult time filled with stress, anxiety and strains on sobriety.
The first step towards avoiding relapse is an increased awareness about why you might find this time of year challenging. Avalon Board Director and Registered Clinical Counsellor Carrie DeJong explains three reasons why it feels more tempting to imbibe over the holidays:
1. The people you are spending time with are also those who have harmed you.
The holidays are filled with expectations of spending time with the people closest to us. But how do you handle the challenge of spending time with someone who has harmed you? What if you experience a strong urge to protect yourself and would prefer to avoid an unhealthy or unsafe person but expectations or circumstances make them impossible to avoid?
It can feel tempting to use alcohol or other drugs to help dampen anger or fear so that it becomes possible to interact with someone who triggers your self-protection response.
2. Your loved ones are not the ones responsible for the significant past traumas, but your alarm-system keeps you fearful they could harm you.
We are hardwired for self-preservation. Judith Herman is one of the foremost researchers in the field of trauma. She says this: “After a traumatic experience, the human system of self-preservation seems to go onto permanent alert as if the danger might return at any moment.” And it can be challenging to turn that alarm system off even when you want to.
Once again, alcohol and other substances may seem tempting to dampen the fear responses. But, in this situation, the fear response may be more about unresolved past traumas rather than a threat occurring in the present moment.
3. You experience shame, anger, or a sense of inadequacy that heightens the difficulty connecting with loved ones.
Those who struggle with substance misuse often experience an overwhelming sense of shame or inadequacy. For some, this profound sense of self-loathing creates a strong desire to withdraw or avoid connection. There may be a deep desire to isolate, numb out, and shut down. If your substance use has negatively impacted your loved ones, a sense of guilt might make you want to avoid contact with them entirely.
Once you have increased your understanding around why you are finding it more of a challenge to maintain sobriety, the next step is beginning to make small changes in the direction of greater health. This can include finding ways to move out of self-protection and into connection with healthy people. It may mean you need to set some boundaries with an unhealthy person in your life. Or you might offer yourself some kindness and self-compassion.
This holiday season, I hope you find something that helps you move out of fear and into a deeper experience of “peace on earth” and “goodwill to all.” May it be your Christmas gift to yourself.