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Maintaining Sobriety and Managing Addiction During the Holidays

A substance use disorder is defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as “when the persistent use of alcohol and/or drugs causes clinically and functionally significant impairment, such as health problems, disability, and failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school, or home.” A person in recovery is working towards a new definition of health and wellness that no longer includes the problematic use of a substance.

For many people, the holidays are a source of tension, and celebrations often revolve around substance use. This can be enormously stressful for a person who is in recovery. Family get-togethers can be emotionally loaded. They might serve as a reminder of past upsetting events, sibling rivalries, or the feeling of not being understood or supported.  Financial pressures can increase during the holiday period and combined with attempting to create the perfect holiday celebration, these stressors can cause added anxiety.  Conversely, not being able to see family can also be difficult.

Here are ways you can provide support to someone in recovery during the holidays:

  • Discuss fears and apprehensions openly. Make a plan to handle anticipated challenges or triggers.

The plan might include noticing early warning signs of relapse such as irritability, worsening anxiety and depression, and avoidance as soon as possible.  Talking about the signs rather than ignoring them or pretending that they don’t exist and agreeing to contact someone to support recovery and prevent relapse is part of a strong plan.  

  • Consider creating new holiday traditions to support recovery.

Expressing empathy and solidarity is imperative in supporting someone with a substance use disorder through the holidays and stressful times.  One option is to help the individual create new positive holiday traditions that replace ones that have a history of being tense or tiring.  Ideas include creating a signature non-alcoholic drink to serve, organizing a walk or outdoor activity, and inviting people who support sobriety to celebrations.

  • Encourage and support the attendance of recovery support meetings.  

These groups often have substance-free celebrations and activities.  If your loved one chooses to attend one of those activities, applaud their decision instead of expecting them to attend events that may be triggering for them.

  • Use the holidays as an opportunity to give back to others -volunteer with your loved one by offering your time to an organization in need.

Volunteering can provide a sense of purpose and connection to your community.  The holiday season can be a perfect time to find an organization looking for extra help.  Volunteerism allows people to find satisfaction in supporting someone else in their time of need which can help improve a person’s mood and alleviate stress.

Contact your local resource center or hospital to ask for information about treatment programs and support. El Camino Hospital provides an evening outpatient addiction treatment program and a day treatment program for individuals who have a dual diagnosis of a substance use disorder and a mental health condition.  If you are interested in learning more about these programs or would like information on other resources in the community, please call 650-988-8468 or toll-free at 866-789-6089. For a calendar of support group meetings and additional information please visit

Written by Lauren Olaiz, MPH, Community Liaison Specialist, El Camino Hospital Behavioral Health Services

This article first appeared in the November 2015 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.

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