The holidays (Christmas/Hanukkah through New Year’s Day) can be rough for SO many reasons. Perhaps you’re spending time with family you can’t stand, or you’re alone while everyone else is with their families. Maybe you’re facing financial hardships and can’t get everyone the gifts you’d like to give them, or maybe you don’t even have time to try to pick out presents in the first place because you’ve got too much going on in your life right now. You also might be attending parties with friends or family where alcohol will be flowing freely – but you’re trying to stop drinking and haven’t told anyone yet.
Whether drinking is your response to stress, anxiety, boredom, or celebration (or simply doing it because everyone else is and you feel awkward not to join in), you’re reading this because you want to stay sober during the holidays. I’ve had to deal with this struggle myself and help my resilient clients here at Coached by Taylor through this difficult time of the year as well.
How do you stay sober during the holidays? It won’t be effortless but no matter where you’re at in your sobriety, whether it’s day one or one hundred, here are 15 tips to help you get through the holiday season sober. These tips span a variety of different situations you might find yourself in. I encourage you to utilize as many as you can!
How to Stay Sober During the Holidays
Situation: Going to holiday parties (without alcohol as your date)
Always have a drink in your hand
This might sound silly, but when was the last time you offered a drink – alcoholic or not – to someone who already had a drink? Especially with the gift of smartphones, people usually aren’t double fisting their drinks like they did back in the day, so as long as you’re drinking something (it doesn’t matter what, but obviously make it non-alcoholic) you’re going to lessen your chances of being offered a drink (which would probably be alcoholic). Don’t knock it ’til ya try it. Be sure to get yourself refills before your glass or cup is empty so no one swoops in to offer you a booze-filled one. If you’re going to a private party at someone’s house, bring your own favorite non-alcoholic beverage to stash in the fridge for easy refills. I highly recommend sparking apple cider in case there’s a toast scenario. People won’t know it’s not champagne and you won’t feel awkward not raising a glass of something.
Is there anyone, anyone, you can talk to about your sobriety? Find a confidant to take to the party or gathering you’re attending, or find someone who’s already going, and let them know of your intentions to not drink. You don’t have to get into the whole story behind why you don’t want to drink if you’re not comfortable doing it, just let them know it would mean a lot to you if they could help you out when you’re in situations where you’re prone to drinking (such as intervening if someone does end up handing you a celebratory shot of liquor). Note: this person is NOT your gatekeeper. At the end of the day, YOU are the only person who can decide whether or not you’re going to drink. Having someone there to act as a buffer or simply not feeling alone with your sobriety (removing the secrecy effect) can remove a lot of stress from the situation. We don’t operate at our best when we’re under pressure, and being stressed out can easily lead to giving in to temptation.
Remove yourself from the situation
Remember you can always leave the situation if you get overwhelmed (this is much easier if you’re not on a boat…maybe turn down those invitations this year). This can mean leaving the party completely or going to the bathroom, running your hands under cold water (possibly splashing it on your face if you’re not wearing makeup), taking some deep breathes, and bolstering up your confidence with some positive self-talk. Think along the lines of affirmations, but less kitschy. Just a good old “You’ve got this. You don’t need to drink. There is more than alcohol on the menu. No one is expecting you to drink” can be the peptalk you need to get back out there and have fun.
These notes can be mental or you can quickly type out some bullet points in a note-taking app on your phone (Google Keep is my personal favorite, it’s available for Android, iOS, as a Chrome plugin, and a web app and syncs flawlessly across all your devices). When you’re in a situation or environment where you’ll be around alcohol, this is a GREAT opportunity to learn more about yourself and your sobriety, namely your strengths and weaknesses. It’s one thing to brainstorm a list of things when you’re not dealing with the possibility of drinking, it’s another to be taking field notes when you’re in a situation where the possibility of drinking is very real.
For these notes, write down details about triggers (when do you feel most pressured to drink in this situation? Are there certain people who make it more difficult to turn down a drink? Is there a certain song that makes you want to drink? You get the idea), things that make you uncomfortable (do you feel left out if you’re the only one not drinking? Do you think people are judging you? Is anyone actually judging you? Are you not having fun and think it’s because you’re sober?), things that worked well (taking breaks in the bathroom to remove yourself from the situation, having a friend there, texting or talking to someone to vent in-the-moment about potential overwhelm, saying “No thanks” and having those magic words magically work, etc). DOCUMENT IT.
This isn’t just important because you’re in a situation where you could drink, that could happen on your way home from work if you pass by a liquor store. What’s important is that this is a special event, a seasonal one where the typical tricks of the trade you’ve been using might not be as effective. Treat it as a scientific observation where you’re the subject. Learn from this. As an added bonus, taking these notes can preoccupy you (people will think you’re probably just texting someone) and take up time, time possibly spent worrying about how you’re going to stay sober otherwise.
Keep a dry house if you’re hosting
Are you hosting your own holiday party and know your guests will want to drink? Make sure everyone takes leftovers with them. That goes for food and alcohol (but mostly alcohol…unless you make a lot of extra food). Play it off as being in a “giving” mood or just a “no, I insist, I don’t have space for all of this” sort of thing.
At the end of the night, pour leftover booze down the drain with the water running to help eliminate the smell (which can be triggering). Do not get rid of leftover alcohol by drinking it! It can actually feel quite empowering to literally have the upper hand over alcohol in this sort of situation. It’s not calling the shots, you are – and you’re telling it to get the hell out of your home and hang out with your plumbing system instead.
Don’t catch yourself making the rationalization “But it’s wasteful to pour something I spent money on down the drain” because it’s not a waste, it’s a declaration! Checking if anyone wants to take anything home first can help with feeling like you’re wasting anything. You at least tried to not have to pour it down the drain. If no one wanted it, then you don’t have to want it either. Get the empty bottles and cans out of your house the same night. Make a run to the dumpster/recycling bin or toss them in a bag, tie it up, and leave it outside. Just seeing the empty bottles in your house can get your mind fixated on drinking; you don’t want to put yourself in that situation if you can help it.
Situation: Dealing with stress without going to the liquor store
Meditation and Deep Breathing
Don’t get freaked out by the “M” word. You don’t have to know anything about meditation in order to meditate. A lot of people think the goal of meditation is to sit on a cushion and have a totally clear and empty mind.
Mindfulness meditation is about being in the present moment and, going a step further, being aware of the present moment (hence the mindfulness aspect). This means you’re not dwelling on the past or being anxious about the future, you’re simply being.
Okay, so how do you “simply be”? You can do this as you sit, lay down, or walk around – but for the sake of brevity I’ll be focusing on if you’re sitting or laying down.
First thing’s first, find a comfortable position with your eyes closed or slightly open but relaxed and fixed upon a spot in front of you (feel free to place an object there for your gaze to rest upon if you find your eyes wandering).
Next, focus on your breathing. When you inhale, does your chest rise more than your stomach sticks out? That probably means you’re taking shallow rather than deep breaths. Practice taking a few deep breaths if you’re not used to it by inhaling through your nose and having your stomach stick out as you do it (if you’re having trouble with this, clasping your hands together behind your head or neck with your elbows out to the sides will make it easier to know what it feels like to breathe from your stomach. Do a few breaths like this then return your arms to a relaxed position and continue). You’ll often see this being referred to as belly breathing.
Here’s a short video where the person is breathing from their chest for the first few breaths, then they switch to breathing deeply with their stomach rising more than their chest (you don’t have to be laying down in order to do this):
Taking deeper breaths activates a parasympathetic reaction, telling your sympathetic nervous system to calm down by lowering the levels of cortisol in your brain (you know, the stuff that your brain pumps out when you’re stressed or anxious). The sympathetic nervous system is controlled by the “fight or flight” response we have, which is activated by stress. Naturally, you can see why activating the opposite of that response is helpful when trying to calm down and relax.
Once you’re comfortable with belly breathing, have this be where your primary attention is. Observe how the sensation of oxygen filling your lungs feels, as well as the sensation of when you exhale. You are there with your breath, and that’s all that matters in that moment. In and out, stomach rising and falling. Your breath is always with you, take this time to be with your breath.
Since you’re human, you will most likely not be able to focus solely on your breathing. Other thoughts will come into your mind and that’s okay! Thoughts happen! The important part is to not get frustrated or upset that you’re thinking. We all have thoughts! Acknowledge the thought as it comes into your mind and allow it to pass on by, kind of like watching clouds in the sky. Don’t form any attachment to the thought, don’t let it lead you down a train of thought of any sort, just let the thought enter your mind, acknowledge it, and pay attention to your next breath as you let the thought pass on by. Think of returning your focus to your breath as a way of saying goodbye to the thought.
This is easier said than done, which is why people practice meditation. If you sit with your breath for five minutes and only had a collective 30 seconds where you were focused on your breathing without a thought distracting you, that’s still awesome! Five minutes a day of sitting with your breathing has been shown to have positive effects on the mind and body, but, just like working out at the gym, you need to keep up with it to see those benefits. They won’t happen right away, but over time you’ll see the changes.
I’ll get more into the benefits of meditation in-depth in a future post, but if you’re looking to fill some time, this would be a great opportunity for you to learn more about it! Here are some great blog posts and other resources about mindfulness and meditation that might get some gears turning about how you can apply these strategies to your own life, for both your sobriety and stress management. Without mindfulness, I probably wouldn’t be sober, which is why I’m such a big fan of it.
Meditation for Beginners: 20 Practical Tips for Understanding the Mind – Zen Habits
Meditation techniques For People Who Hate Meditation – Fast Company
5 Ways Meditation Will Change You – The Daily Zen
Understanding Meditation: How Attention Changes Our Brains – The Huffington Post
Reach out to someone
Text, email, or better yet call a friend or someone you feel like you can talk to. You don’t have to talk about your sobriety or bring up that you’re struggling with not drinking. Simply reaching out to someone can ground you and allow your mind to shift itself from the negative things it’s tangled up on. Venting is a great form of blowing off steam and can help you get out of your own head by verbalizing your thoughts, making them seem way less overwhelming because you’ve been able to put them into words. Just make sure you’re sharing your frustrations, not directing them at the other person.
Since it’s the holiday season, people can be busy. Don’t let the kindness of strangers be overlooked! There are a variety of free online forums that are available to use. Reddit is one the comes to mind. If you’re unfamiliar with Reddit, it’s an online forum with subforums (called subreddits) for pretty much anything. Looking for cute pictures of animals? Head on over to /r/aww. Want to read about other people’s struggles and triumphs with sobriety and possibly make a post of your own to connect with others? Give /r/stopdrinking a try (this is the subreddit I used as a support system while I was trying to get sober, there are over 54,000 subscribers which gives you a great span of perspectives). Need to blow off steam? /r/offmychest is a good place to do it. If you have depression or anxiety, /r/depression and /r/anxiety are subreddits you can find a supportive group of strangers on the internet to share your thoughts and feelings with. The nice thing about Reddit is that you can be as anonymous as you want, and you don’t need an account in order to browse people’s posts (in case you’re not comfortable with putting yourself out there online just yet).
Coach.me is free a habit-tracking app and website. You add habits to check into them and there are a lot of different ones to choose from. What’s nice is that within each habit you add, there is a Q&A community of sorts. I can’t speak for other communities on Coach.me but the No Alcohol habit has a tight-knit and welcoming community. You’ll see me posting there on occasion, as that’s where I got started as a sobriety coach in the first place (you don’t need to sign up for coaching to use the Q&A community). There wasn’t much of a community a few years ago, but now over 30,000 people are on there tracking their sobriety.
For in-person support when people you know are unavailable, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or SMART meetings (if those are your kind of thing) are other options. To find an AA meeting, you can locate groups in your area on this site, which will give you the local chapter’s website where meeting information may be posted. Visit this link to search for SMART Recovery meetings in your area. SMART also has online meetings – I’m not too sure how those work but you can browse them here.
If you think you’re going to need more support than a meeting or online community can provide, you may want to look into hiring a sobriety coach. I offer online sobriety coaching services through email, Google Hangout chat messages, with the option of phone calls as well. I offer new clients their first week free in order to see if the coaching is a good fit and if the format works for them. You can email or message me 24/7 and I’ll respond as soon as possible. We can get on the phone and talk through some of your anxieties and brainstorm things that can work well to complement your sobriety efforts. Or, we can talk about something totally different if you want to keep your mind off drinking! If that’s something you’re interested in, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and just let me know what’s on your mind and that you’re thinking about trying out the coaching. More information about pricing and other logistics can be found on my FAQs page and homepage.
Writing in a journal is similar to the notetaking tip above, but it goes further than bullet points. A journal doesn’t have to have the stereotypical “Dear Diary…” beginning to it and, no, it’s not just something for teenage girls to write about their crushes in. There really aren’t any rules to writing in a journal, but allow yourself to explore your thoughts. Unlike meditating, here is where you’d want to follow your trains of thought to see where they take you. Getting your thoughts out of your head and onto paper helps make them much more tangible. You’re able to see them written out, they’re not just flying around your mind like a chaotic whirlwind. You may or may not be the analytical type. If you aren’t, that’s fine, just dumping out your thoughts and feelings on paper helps. If you are, then open up the floodgates and let yourself try to connect some dots across your journal entries. Don’t get obsessive to the point where you’re stressing yourself out even more, but treat it as scientific observation of sorts. Being able to detach yourself from your emotions in that way can give you a less biased outlook on things, as well as give you the space to act more rationally.
Plan out activities
I can ensure you that when you’re stressed, it’ll be harder to recall things you like doing. When I’m stressed, I feel like there’s NOTHING I enjoy – which isn’t true! I’m just in such a bad mood I can’t remember them. That’s why I keep a list handy with the things I like to do. I highly recommend you create a list like this. Mine is written on an index card that I can keep with me, but you can also type yours up on your phone if that’s easier for you. Try to come up with five to ten things, because there’s no way of knowing what you’ll be in the mood for and you can easily limit yourself if you have three activities to pick from on your list and don’t want to do any of them…which will frustrate you even more! Really think about what you like to do, things that bring you joy or relax you. If you like to go on vacation to exotic islands, that’s great, but I wouldn’t include that on this particular list since it probably won’t be too feasible for you to drop everything and do that. Consider things you can do both inside and outside, both at home and away from home.
You’ll never know what you’re going to be dealing with or where when you need to relax. For example, my list includes watching Netflix, reading a book, playing with my cats, taking a walk without my phone, meditating, playing a game on my phone, coloring in an adult coloring book, painting my nails, writing (either in my journal or prose), and so on. I’m a bit more of a homebody, so if you’re someone who enjoys the outdoors your list will probably look much different. Be sure to include some self-care items on there as well. Here’s a list from Tiny Buddha that can help you think of some self-care activities that you might enjoy to put on your list.
Situation: Not knowing what to say if someone asks you if you want a drink (or why you’re not drinking)
You could lie
I’m putting my least favorite option first. I don’t condone lying, but sometimes that is something a lot of people are more comfortable with, especially early on in their sobriety or if it’s just a touchy subject. If you want to go this route, I suggest following the lie up immediately with a compliment, observation, or question of/for the other person. People really like talking about themselves when it comes to things they’re proud of. This is a great deflection technique.
As far as lies go, you could say any of the following: “I don’t feel like drinking” or “No thanks, I don’t drink” – both of which aren’t far-fetched lies. But, again, if you’re a few days or weeks into your sobriety, you may feel really uncomfortable saying those things as though they’re true because you’re still unsure of that. I highly recommend getting used to saying them because guess what – one day, those aren’t going to be lies AT ALL! But, for now, it is alright to say them as a lie if that makes it a lot easier to be convincing.
Other lies that might be true but probably aren’t include: You’re on antibiotics, are the designated driver, have an early morning obligation, or you need to do something after the party that is a helluva lot easier to do without a drop of alcohol in you.
You could tell the truth
If you’re closer to day one on the sobriety scale, you’re probably not going to feel comfortable declaring that you don’t drink, especially if you haven’t come out and told anyone you’re trying to get sober just yet. Being able to say that and believe it comes with the territory of adopting it as part of your identity (which happens, I promise!). If you’re confident and comfortable in your sobriety to the point where you are fine saying “No thanks, I don’t drink anymore” or “I’m sober now, actually” or even a simple “No thank you” then PLEASE do so! Many people won’t ask why, but be ready for the people who do.
As I mentioned earlier, having a drink in your hand can eliminate your chances of someone asking you what you want to drink in the first place. The tips in this section is for when you’re asked anyway. It’s always good to have more than one backup plan. If someone asks you to drink and you give them an answer, think of what to say if they probe further with a, “How come?” or “Since when?” or “Why on earth would anyone do that?!” Again, what you share depends on how comfortable you are with sharing your story, the setting, and a bunch of other different factors.
It can be nice to limit yourself to an elevator pitch of sorts that you can use for any situation, just for ease of access. Then you can adapt to the situation as necessary. These will be personal to you, so I can’t really give you a script to follow (nor would I recommend it). As an example, I told people I just wanted to see how I’d feel. I wanted to boost my productivity at work and have more time for hobbies and such, and drinking took a lot of time and drained my energy. Simple as that. Other examples might be “I’m seeing how it goes; I’m pretty sick of being hungover and feel a lot better when I’m not drinking, even if it’s not to the point where I get hungover” or “I feel a lot healthier and clear-headed and am seeing where it takes me.” Whatever your truth is, keep it simple. You don’t have to share your lowest lows if you don’t want to, you’ll be a better judge of this than I am.
You’re training for 2017
Tell people you’re getting a jumpstart on your New Year’s Resolution to see how long you can go without drinking. This could be true, maybe it’s not, but either way you can easily use quickly approaching new year as a scapegoat without having many people question it. Get ready, however, for the all powerful “Why would you not want to drink?” type of questions (see tip #2 in this section). Fielding these can be tricky, but remember that the person asking them is most likely asking out of genuine curiosity rather than asking in order to convince you that your reasons are stupid and you should shut up and drink. Have the mindset that these questions are asked to connect with you rather than impose certain forms of thought on you and you’ll be much less stressed in answering them. It also helps to have a couple of answers prepared.
Situation: Being alone with nothing to do – except drink
Don’t let yourself be isolated
Post on social media to see who else is alone, find someone to talk to, find activities to engage in that aren’t destructive (hint: you don’t have to be stressed to do the activities you enjoy that you wrote down to do when you’re stressed), go to bed early, allow yourself to be sober. You aren’t the only one alone for the holidays – you can certainly band together with others who are alone during this time of year as well, whether that’s in-person or online. Reach out to others and accept the fact that you don’t have to be alone and you have more control over it than you think. Isolation can feel suffocating and make you feel as though you don’t have a way out. No matter how loudly that idea cries out in your head, try your best to remember that it’s not true.
Plan out your free time
Just like dealing with stress, plan out some things for you to do. Don’t get too crazy and plan out every second of every single day, but schedule blocks of time to do various things. For example, from 8am to 10am you might want to block out time to clean around your house. from 10am to 12pm you might want to do a self-care focused activity. 12pm to 1pm you can eat lunch. 1pm to 3pm you can do an activity from your list of things you enjoy doing that you hopefully have made up (see earlier in this post). For each block of time, leave it a little open-ended. Don’t say you’ll read 10 chapters in your book after lunch, or that you’ll clean a specific area of your home in the morning. Block out those times as “Activity I Enjoy” and “Cleaning.” Keep it simple. If you’re the kind of person who NEEDS more structure in order to get going, then add more structure to that. It can feel defeating, however, if you set out to do a specific task and don’t finish everything it calls for. You don’t want to feel as though you’re failing at something, that’s not going to feel very good!
You can also choose to embrace your solidarity and find yourself a sense of peace within that. Think of it as a vacation from the everyday hustle you probably have to deal with during your commute, at work, etc. There’s a big difference between busy and being productive, however, and you want to air on the side of being productive. Being busy can stress us out and make us feel like we can’t catch a break. It’s called a holiday break for a reason – you’re getting a break from something. Don’t overdo it. If you want to lounge around in your PJs all day and the most you’ve done is eaten and watched 3 hours of a show on Netflix, that’s totally fine.
I know I’m beating this with a stick like it’s a pinata, but it kind of is. I’m an analogy enthusiast, so humor me a bit. Smacking open the shell you’ve formed around yourself through drinking instead of facing your issues is going to have a whole lot of insecurities and new discoveries about yourself come pouring out. The first hit you might only get a couple pieces of insightful information about yourself, or maybe it won’t be insightful at all. But keep hitting it like a sugar crazed 7 year old at a birthday party and you’ll get the motherload.
I don’t recommend breaking out of your shell in one day, nor do I think that’s possible. You’re going to have a lot of raw emotions…emotions you used to either drown out with alcohol before they got to be unbearable or you reacted to by numbing yourself with alcohol when they did become unbearable. Either way, without alcohol as your go-to reliever of these unbearable emotions, you’re going to have to face them. Thankfully, they’re much easier to face than you think. Baby steps, my friends. Baby steps.
The most important takeaway here is that you can get through the holiday season sober. It takes preparation, though, and you’ll need to build up your defenses as best you can. Don’t assume plan A will be a sure ticket to staying sober, you can always get tossed a curveball. Have some backup plans available because even if you don’t end up needing them, they sure as hell are good to have if you do need them. That said, don’t stress or obsess over it too much. Stick with your plan, rehearse and familiarize yourself with it, visualize the different responses you might get and how you’ll respond in return (rather than react).
This is also a great opportunity to identify triggers. You’ll notice that for all of these situations, I mentioned writing in a journal or taking notes. Obstacles are great learning opportunities because they reveal our weaknesses to us, as well as our strengths. Once we know what those are, we can utilize our strengths to compensate for our weaknesses while trying to bolster ourselves up in the areas we’re weak in.
Sobriety is a process. Perhaps some people can wake up one day, decide they’re never going to drink again, then that’s that – but that’s not the norm and that sure as hell wasn’t how it went for me. So don’t worry, you’re not alone in facing the holidays and knowing there’s a struggle to be had. It’s certainly a struggle worth winning.