14 Useful Tips For Navigating The Holidays When You're Not Drinking

Experts share how to partake in the festivities but still take care of yourself.

The holidays can be a fun time to get together with friends and family. But for some, those gatherings involve temptations or stressors that can prompt them to lean on alcohol.

A recent study by American Addiction Centers found that for those in recovery from addiction, feelings of stress, anxiety and depression ― all potential triggers for relapse ― were more common during the holidays. The same study found roughly 29 percent of Americans generally drank more during this time of the year.

“Whether you are newly sober, years into your recovery or simply choosing to abstain from drinking alcohol this holiday season, navigating sobriety during a time where having a celebratory drink is commonplace has its challenges,” said Lawrence Weinstein, chief medical officer of the AAC.

But the good news is that with a little preparation, a happy and alcohol-free holiday is definitely possible. Here are some expert-backed tips on how to enjoy the holidays if you’re sober:

1. Be honest with yourself

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Before committing to a holiday engagement, take a moment and consider whether you are truly able to handle being in an environment where people are socially drinking.

“When you’re newly sober, you have to be honest with yourself about the situations that you put yourself in,” said Sal Raichbach, an addiction specialist at Ambrosia Treatment Center in Florida. “At the end of the day, your health is most important. If that means avoiding parties, bars or people that you feel might be triggering, it might be worth making other plans.”

2. Bring a sober buddy

Tina B. Tessina, a psychotherapist and author of The Real 13th Step: Discovering Confidence, Self-Reliance and Independence Beyond the 12-Step Programs, recommended bringing a nondrinking friend or family member with you. “Having support will make the whole thing much easier,” she said.

3. Identify and avoid your triggers

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This is particularly important for people who are living with an alcohol addiction and are recently sober. A person, place or situation in which substance use occurred in the past can trigger someone in recovery to want to indulge in bad habits, according to Caroline Carney, chief medical officer of Magellan Rx, the pharmacy benefits management division of Magellan Health Inc., which helps people make health care decisions.

“A trigger might also be a situation in which emotions and stress are triggered ― perhaps a family gathering or office party,” she said, noting that you should decline invitations involving situations or people that may be unhealthy for you to be around at all costs.

4. Call in reinforcements

If you’re newly sober and you start to feel uncomfortable in your environment, “take a quick step outside and call your sponsor ― someone who knows you and all the hard work you’ve put into changing your life and can remind you that it’s all worth it,” said Randall Dwenger, an addiction psychiatrist and medical director at Mountainside treatment center in Connecticut.

You may even want to check in before the event and let them know that you are going to be at a party where there will be alcohol and that you’ll be calling them if any sort of temptation strikes.

5. Practice saying no

It might sound a little silly, but it works. Before heading to a party, take a moment to visualize yourself saying “no” to someone who offers you a drink.

“Have a response ready for pushy people who want to know why you’re not drinking,” Tessina said, adding that answers like “just not drinking tonight, thank you” or just “gave it up” should suffice. “If the person persists, excuse yourself and talk to someone else. You can even retreat to the bathroom for a few minutes to regroup.”

6. Grab a nonalcoholic drink

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“Having something to hold in your hand can make you feel more comfortable at a party,” Dwenger said. He suggested grabbing a soda or cup of water upon arriving or bringing your own. Making a delicious mocktail can also be a good alternative.

Having a nonalcoholic drink in hand will also “prevent others from offering you a drink and risking your sobriety,” Weinstein added.

7. Avoid visual reminders

Out of sight, out of mind. Steven Reigns, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Therapy For Adults in Los Angeles, said standing away from the bar during a holiday party or choosing a spot at the table with your back to it can help. “It is [also] acceptable to ask the person sitting next to you to move their drink farther away from you,” he said.

8. Develop an exit strategy

It’s perfectly OK if you need to go. Have a plan in place in case things get too difficult and you need to remove yourself from the gathering.

“This may include driving your own car to be able to leave if you feel uncomfortable or making others in your support network aware in case you need to reach out,” said Jennifer Langston, primary therapist at The Freedom Center, a substance abuse intensive outpatient program.

9. Don’t assume the punch is nonalcoholic

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Be mindful of what you drink, as some punches may be spiked. If you do end up accidentally ingesting something with alcohol, know that this doesn’t make you “bad” or put you back to where you started.

“Patients tend to think if they accidentally had a sip of alcohol that they just relapsed and might as well continue drinking. It is important to be easy on yourself and understand that a mistake is just that and your sobriety doesn’t have to be compromised,” Langston said.

10. Remember your motivation to not drink

“Make a list of all of the primary reasons that you want to remain sober and keep them on a card in your pocket, wallet or purse,” said David Festinger, a professor of psychology and director of substance abuse research and education at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. He recommended pulling it out and reading it in the event that you feel like you are going to give in.

11. Take care of yourself

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Self-care is extremely important during the holiday season. You may not have control over your family or friends, but you do have control over what Langston referred to as the “three pillars,” which are:

  • Mental. Practice self-care in this area by diving into a new book or meditating.

  • Physical. If you feel like you have too much idle time, try working out or going to a yoga class to keep yourself active.

  • Emotional. It’s important this time of year to tap into your feelings to understand why you may be feeling stressed or angry.

12. Throw an alcohol-free holiday celebration

If you don’t feel strong enough to fight temptation, have your own booze-free get-together.

“Invite your sober friends and those who can at least abstain for your party. Sober fun is possible!” said Nancy Irwin, a clinical psychologist at Seasons in Malibu, an addiction treatment center.

13. Praise your efforts

Celebrate your sober victories, whether those are choosing to avoid a party you know will be tempting or passing on a round of shots being handed out.

“The holiday season can bring on a lot of stress, and for those who used to use alcohol to cope, celebrating sober for the first time can be rough. Know that a little self-compassion goes a long way, and you’re doing great,” said Jennifer Benetato, a New York City-based integrative psychotherapist and founder of The AMBIKA Method, a holistic program designed to enhance emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.

14. Don’t hide a relapse

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If you’re in recovery and you do experience a relapse, don’t keep it to yourself. You should stay committed to your sobriety, focus on the positive and be honest with yourself and your loved ones, according to Deni Carise, chief scientific officer for Recovery Centers of America.

“If you do give in and succumb to the pressure, don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help immediately and recommit yourself to your recovery,” Carise said.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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