How to Avoid a Holiday Relapse

For most teenagers, the winter holidays mean lots family time.

If you’re a teenager in treatment for an alcohol or substance use disorder, family time can be very challenging.

From Thanksgiving all the way through to New Year’s Day, you’ll go to parties, dinners, and get-togethers that bring everyone together to eat, drink, and share the kind of quality family time it’s hard to find space for during the rest of the year.

It’s quality family time – and that’s important.

But if you’re like most teenagers, you know family members can push your buttons like no one else in the world. You also know – especially if you’re in addiction treatment – that understanding family dynamics plays a big part in recovery. For some teens, family issues are at the root of their issues with alcohol or drugs.

If that’s true for you, then quality family time can be a minefield of memories and powerful emotions.

A word here, a glance there, or even a small gesture from a close family member can unlock a cascade uncomfortable and disruptive thought patterns that may be difficult to control and can lead to behaviors you’re trying to avoid – such as drinking alcohol or using drugs.

Handling Family Time

If you’re in addiction recovery, you’re familiar with this phenomenon. The words – or gestures or glances – are called triggers and the behavior is called relapse.

Here’s how the American Psychological Association (APA) defines trigger:

A stimulus that elicits a reaction. An event could be a trigger for a memory of a past experience and an accompanying state of emotional arousal.

And here’s how the APA defines relapse:

The recurrence of a disorder or disease after a period of improvement or apparent cure. The term also refers to recurrence of substance use after a period of abstinence.

You want to avoid relapse: that’s your primary goal in recovery. And you can avoid relapse. However, holiday time with family can be a literal minefield of triggers. Some you can avoid through simple planning. Others – no matter how hard you try – are impossible to avoid. And since you can’t avoid them, you have to learn how to manage them. Which means managing all the emotions they elicit without the help of alcohol or substances.

You can do that.

You practiced your coping skills during treatment, or with your counselor, or perhaps in social support groups like AA or SMART Recovery. By now you know what your go-to techniques are, and those are the ones you should be ready to use at any moment – because one thing about triggers is they can sneak up on you. One minute you’re fine, and the next, boom: your brain floods your body with stress hormones and you’re barely holding on.

We want you to avoid that, so we came up with a list to support the coping skills you already have.

Five Ways to Handle Holiday Triggers

  1. Prepare yourself. Knowing what to expect and having your go-to internal coping mechanisms on deck and ready for action is half the battle. Triggers can result in instant waves of emotion, anxiety, and adrenaline. Be ready to handle these. If one of your go-to coping mechanisms is taking a walk, then go take a walk when you’re feeling triggered. It might feel a little awkward to get up from the dinner table and announce you’re going out for a quick constitutional, but that awkwardness is preferable to relapse.
  2. Find a Support Group. If you’re traveling, it’s a good idea to have a look on the internet and find a meeting in your destination area. If you’re staying home for the holidays, and extended family is coming to you, make sure you can get to your meetings. And if you’re off your regular schedule, then look around and find an alternative.
  3. Use the phone. Call a mentor, recovery partner, or friend if you feel you need someone to talk to. If you go to meetings but haven’t yet exchanged numbers with anyone, this might be a good time to take that step – especially if you’re traveling away from your typical support system.
  4. Recovery-Specific Activities. If you’re traveling, plan ways to engage in activities that support recovery while you’re away from home. For instance, if the gym is your thing, then do some research and find one close to your destination. If you’re not traveling, make sure to schedule recovery activities, and try your best to stick to the plan. It’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the holidays and leave out your me time. But at this time of year, it couldn’t be more important.
  5. Be Mindful of Amends. If you participate in a Twelve-Step program and want to make amends, please be mindful of your family and loved ones. Holidays are charged with emotion for everyone involved, not just those of us in recovery. If you think this is a good time to have the talk with a specific person, then check in with a mentor, counselor, and other recovery partners first. Listen to their advice, be responsible with your words, and make sure this is the right time.

A Time to Reflect, Gauge Progress, and Look Forward

One more thing about the holidays: people from your past always show up. We’re not talking about your family. They’ll be around and you know it. We’re talking about friends, acquaintances, and other people from the time before you entered treatment and began your recovery. It’s remarkable, and the timing can seem like the universe is testing you: minutes after a family member makes a comment that pushes all your emotional buttons, you get a text from an old friend inviting you to come out and have a good time – meaning drink or do drugs.

For them, that’s a party.

For you, that’s relapse.

Here’s what you can do. Look at the entire situation – getting triggered by your family, the invitations, the temptations – as opportunities to reinforce your coping skills, reaffirm your recovery, and recommit to the life you’ve chosen for yourself. You can say no to relapse and yes to a life without alcohol and substances.

When you do that, holidays with the family can be a time when your recovery becomes stronger than ever. You can even learn to look forward to it, because it reminds you how far you’ve come, and how strong you really are.