Broken Christmas ornament on a red background. Holidays are stressful for people in addiction recovery.

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

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Holidays are notoriously stressful for everyone, and especially so for people newly in addiction recovery.

If your loved one began treatment for their addiction this year, you’re probably looking forward to the return of happy holiday celebrations. Often, the pain and loneliness of active addiction are amplified during the holidays. Addicted family members may be absent from celebrations, show up obviously intoxicated, or pick messy fights that transform what should have been a joyous time into a devastating reminder of the cruel power of addiction. So it’s natural to look forward to getting back to “normal” holiday celebrations when your family member returns to health and happiness. 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 support to your loved one during this time. Workit Health has previously shared about some ways the 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.

Expectations and anxiety about familial reactions

Especially if this is the first big family gathering since your loved one started their addiction recovery journey, they might feel a lot of trepidation about the way the family will treat them. They might feel embarrassed or ashamed about things they did in the past, or anxious that everyone is going to be watching 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? This discomfort 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 your loved one shares your excitement about getting together with the family now that they’re sober. But that also means they’re placing expectations on themselves, some of which may not be met. For example, people who are used to functioning under the influence of drugs often find sober life tedious during the early months of recovery. They might build up an idea of a loving, fun sober get-together, only to find they’re really bored and have no idea what to do without getting high or drunk.

Countering that anxiety

Make an effort to include them in conversations, even if they’re hanging out in the corner avoiding everyone. You might also try giving them a low-stress, low-effort responsibility, like taking people’s coats. Yeah, I seriously just said to talk to them, and ask them to hang coats. These things sound ridiculously simple, but helping your loved one to feel useful and occupied will help keep them engaged in the present—which is a really powerful tool against relapse.

“Helping your loved one to feel useful and occupied will help keep them engaged in the present—which is a really powerful tool against relapse.”

The problem of too much money

One of the most tangibly gratifying rewards of recovery is having more cash available than we did when we were using. Drugs are expensive and alcohol adds up, so if we stop buying them, we 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 they get at drugs or alcohol. Their holiday bonus might feel like it’s begging to slip into her dealer’s pocket or the liquor store’s till. Your loved one can go out and spend the funds on gifts right away, but until they actually gives the presents out, the possibility of returning them and buying drugs remains. People who don’t have experience with addiction don’t always consider or understand, but having access to money can be one of the most difficult triggers to contend with.

“Having access to money can be one of the most difficult triggers to contend with.”

The problem of not enough money

On the other end of the spectrum, 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 or risky 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 substance use may have been masking some of those symptoms, and therefore actually allowing them to work.

When I was using every day, 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 sick and eventually quit jobs because my PTSD symptoms were too overwhelming. I eventually 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 eking 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. And since they’re not masking their feelings with substances, that crap feeling can hit hard.

Alcohol at celebrations

As a friend or family member of someone in recovery, you might be hyper-aware of the presence of alcohol at family gatherings. Some hosts choose not to have alcohol present, or to moderate their own consumption. I’ve had people handle this situation by awkwardly asking me whether it’s okay for them to have the 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. At the very least, pull them aside so they’re not put 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 whose problem is drugs 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 them if it turns out that they are drinking. That will only amplify all of that anxiety they’re likely already feeling. A better idea is to ask them ahead of time whether they want to drink, how much they want to drink, and if there’s any way you can support that choice (and if they say to please let them handle it themselves, 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.

Holidays are stressful for people newly in addiction recovery. Learn why holidays create stress, so you can understand and help your loved one.

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A young Man on a couch with a dog using his phone for addiction recovery

Where to now?

Start your recovery today. Download our app or sign up for a free 5-week course.

Elizabeth Brico is a freelance writer with an MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University. She is a journalism fellow with TalkPoverty and a recipient of the 2021/22 Unicorn Fund. 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.

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