Why Are the Holidays so Stressful to People in Addiction Recovery?

Many people relapse during the holidays—so it’s crucial that you provide extra support to your loved one during this time.

If your loved one began treatment for their addiction this year, you're probably looking forward to your big winter holiday celebrations. Often, the pain and loneliness of active addiction are amplified during the holidays when addicted family members are absent from celebrations, or show up obviously intoxicated, or pick slurry fights that transform what should have been a joyous time into a devastating reminder of addiction’s cruel power. So when you see your beloved family member return to health and happiness, it's natural to look forward to a return to "normal" holiday celebrations. But you should know that things might not go exactly as you hope.

Holidays are notoriously stressful for everyone, and especially so for people newly in addiction recovery (or even people who have been in recovery or remission for a long time). Many people relapse during the holidays—so it’s crucial that you provide extra support to your loved one during this time. Last month, Workit Health wrote about some ways families of people in recovery can help to support them, and ways people in recovery can support themselves. Today, I'm going to talk a little bit about why holidays can produce so much extra stress, so that you can better understand and help your loved one in early recovery.

Anxiety About Familial Reactions

Especially if this is the first big family gathering since he has started his addiction recovery journey, your loved one might feel a lot of trepidation about the way the family will treat him. He might feel embarrassed or ashamed about things he did in the past, or anxious that everyone is going to be watching him for signs of relapse. I know when I am around people who have known me more high than sober, I feel self-conscious about something as simple as a runny nose. Do they think I'm snorting drugs, or in withdrawal? Which makes me act totally weird—like not blowing my nose, as though it’s less conspicuous to let snot trickle down my face than to grab a tissue. And of course, when I realize how suspiciously my anxiety is causing me to behave, I become even more anxious and paranoid about being judged. It's a vicious cycle—and it's not unique to me. It’s very possible your loved one is going through something similar.

I know when I am around people who have known me more high than sober, I feel self-conscious about something as simple as a runny nose.

There's also a good chance he shares your excitement about getting together with the family in a positive way now that's he's sober. But that also means he's placing expectations on himself, some of which may not be met. For example, people who are used to functioning under the influence of drugs can find sober life tedious during the early months of recovery. He might build up an idea of a loving, fun sober get-together, only to find he's really bored and has no idea what to do without getting high or drunk. Make an effort to include him in conversations, even if he’s hanging out in the corner avoiding everyone. You might also try giving him a low-stress responsibility, like taking people’s coats. Yeah—I seriously just said to talk to him, and ask him to hang coats. These things sound ridiculously simple, but helping him to feel useful and occupied will help keep him engaged in the present—which is a really powerful tool against relapse.

Helping him to feel useful and occupied will help keep him engaged in the present—which is a really powerful tool against relapse.

Money Problems

One of the most tangibly gratifying rewards of recovery is having more cash available than you did when you were using. Drugs are expensive, so if you stop buying them, you find that items that once seemed unreachable are now affordable. Being able to buy holiday gifts for the first time in years is an incredible feeling. But having extra money can also be triggering. Your loved one is likely used to throwing any extra cash she gets at drugs. Her holiday bonus might feel like its begging to slip into her dealer's pocket. She can go out and spend it on gifts right away, but until she actually gives them out, she still retains the possibility of returning them and buying drugs. It's something that people who don't have experience with addiction don't always consider—but having access to the money for drugs can be one of the most difficult triggers to contend with.

Having access to the money for drugs can be one of the most difficult triggers to contend with.

On the other hand, some people new to recovery don't have as much money as they did while using. Treatment can be expensive depending on someone's location and insurance. Some people lose some of their cash flow when they start rebuilding their lives. This may be because they were selling drugs, stealing, or engaging in other illegal activities to fund their habit, and stepping away from that is part of their recovery. If your loved one has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), like I do, their drug use may have been masking some of those symptoms, actually allowing them to work. When I was using everyday, I made enough money to fund my own heroin habit, my boyfriend's considerably more expensive habit, pay rent on a room, and save for grad school. When I stopped, I became a nervous wreck. I continuously had to call out and eventually quit jobs because my PTSD symptoms were too overwhelming. I finally built up a freelance writing career that allows me to earn income while also being able to work around my PTSD and depression symptoms, but I'm still just eeking by compared to my finances while using. Your loved one could be in a similar position. Instead of being able to buy a ton of awesome presents, they may only be able to buy very inexpensive ones—or none at all. And that will likely make them feel like crap. A crap feeling they're making an effort not to mask with drugs.  

Alcohol at Celebrations

As a friend or family member of someone in recovery, you might be hyper-aware about the presence of alcohol at family gatherings. Some hosts choose not to have alcohol present, or to moderate their consumption. I've had people handle this situation by awkwardly asking me whether it's okay for them to have that drink they're already pouring. That's always such an uncomfortable situation—even if it is triggering, who is going to actually say, "No, don't enjoy that drink you clearly want?" So if you think alcohol might be a trigger, it's definitely better to ask your loved one beforehand. Or at the very least, pull him aside so he's not on the spot in front of everyone.

If you think alcohol might be a trigger, it’s definitely better to ask your loved one beforehand.

But you also need to realize that everyone's recovery is different. Some people choose to still consume alcohol while staying abstinent from other substances. Some people choose to moderate their usage. Don't simply assume your loved one doesn't want to drink. And definitely don't yell at him if he is drinking. That is going to amplify all of that anxiety he's likely already feeling. A better idea is to ask him ahead of time whether he wants to drink, how much he wants to drink, and if there's any way you can support that choice (and if he says to please let him handle it himself—respect that).

The holiday season can be a wonderful time to reconnect with your loved one in recovery. But not everything is going to go perfectly as planned—it never does. Take a moment to recognize that your loved one is undergoing a lot of stress right now. An extra dose of love and understanding will go a long way.


Workit Health offers online therapy, coaching, & anti-craving meds.


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Elizabeth Brico is a freelance writer with an MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University. Her blog, Betty's Battleground, was recently ranked by Feedspot as one of the top 75 PTSD blogs. She is also a regular contributing writer for HealthyPlace's trauma blog. Her work has appeared on Vice, Vox, Stat News, The Fix, and others. When she isn't working, she can usually be found reading, writing, or watching speculative fiction.