For many people, the holiday season and its festivities come with feelings of excitement and joy. However, some people also deal with overwhelming feelings of sadness, stress, and loneliness, which can lead to increased instances of substance abuse and overdose.
For those who are recovering from substance use disorders, this time of year can be especially difficult. Even a single lapse back into drug or alcohol abuse can have devastating consequences due to a lack of tolerance after detoxing.
Current data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that drug overdoses increase during the holiday months and although suicides do not peak during the holidays as is commonly rumored, substance abuse is often a factor in suicidal behavior.1,2
Drug overdoses are a real risk during the holiday season but understanding the impact of seasonal stressors, knowing how to cope, and having access to substance abuse treatment can help prevent overdoses and save lives.
The Impact of Holiday Stress
While the holidays can be the most wonderful time of the year, the stress that comes along with them is also very real. Holiday stress can be a result of many different factors, but the following are a few of the most common sources of stress during the holiday season.
- Family conflict – Family conflict can happen at any time throughout the year, but during the holidays, it often escalates. For example, your grandma may constantly remind you that she knows several eligible bachelors, serving as yet another reminder that you are still single. Or your sister’s habit of checking her phone mid-conversation may start to drive you up the wall. Additional issues like sibling rivalries, parental conflicts, and clashing personalities can all lead to extreme tension and conflict, especially when family members who don’t usually spend time together suddenly engage with one another.
- Celebratory events – Holiday parties and events are often coupled with alcohol, making it easy to misuse alcohol as a way of dealing with stress or other negative feelings. Alcoholic beverages are everywhere during the holiday season. It’s easily accessible and it’s also often socially acceptable to overindulge.
- Financial strain – The financial burden of the holidays can also be a huge stressor. Buying gifts, hosting events, traveling and taking care of end-of-the-year expenses at home can all take a toll on your bank account. Many people even go into debt during the holiday season, which can add additional stress and anxiety to an already stressful time of the year.
- Grief – Grief and loss are often amplified during the holiday season and memories of previous holidays spent with loved ones can make us feel sad or lonely. The loss of a loved one, a recent breakup, or ongoing estranged relationships are all circumstances that can cause grief, especially during the holidays when unrealistic expectations run rampant.
- Winter blues or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – Some people experience the “winter blues” and others may experience a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is related to the change in seasons.3 These emotional issues are often difficult to overcome without professional counseling or medication. Allowing the symptoms to persist without addressing them can cause them to worsen or intensify, which can also lead to the abuse of alcohol or drugs as a means of coping.
All of these stressors can contribute to alcohol and drug abuse, especially if you have a history of addiction. Any misuse of addictive substances may cause an overdose, but a person who is in recovery may be especially vulnerable to a life-threatening overdose.
Coping with Stress During the Holiday Season
Seeing as drug overdoses do increase during the holiday season, having effective coping strategies to deal with stress is a much healthier alternative to drug and alcohol abuse. Coping with stress during the holiday season may not always be easy, but there are many ways to do so without misusing addictive substances, such as:
- Sticking to a strict budget to avoid financial stress.
- Working out regularly, eating healthy foods, and getting enough sleep.
- Maintaining your normal routine as much as possible.
- Meditating and doing yoga/breathing exercises regularly.
- Skipping holiday gatherings if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
- Asking family members or friends for help with things on your to-do list.
There is no single or easy way to overcome stress during the holiday season, but applying a variety of techniques such as the ones listed above can make things easier.
How to Prevent Overdose During the Holidays
If you have a loved one who is in recovery, knowing the signs of overdose can help you react quickly and take appropriate action if it becomes necessary. On the other hand, if you are the individual in recovery, there are several ways to can actively work to prevent overdose during the holiday season.
- Attend AA, NA, or other support group meetings. It might be tempting to loosen up during the holidays but you can stay committed to your sobriety goals by regularly engaging in treatment and group supports.
- Work closely with your sponsor. Sharing challenging circumstances as well as personal successes with your sponsor can help you stay motivated and tackle problems as they arise instead of letting them fester and grow. Talking with your sponsor regularly during the holidays is a great way to stay one step ahead of cravings and triggers and learn from the life experience of someone who has already managed to get through a few holiday seasons sober.
- Communicate openly with loved ones. If your friends and family members know you are in recovery, you may feel comfortable communicating with them about expectations for alcohol-free holiday events or family gatherings where alcohol is available. Openly discussing your preferences for these situations will help your loved ones be more sensitive to your needs and requests and provide them with valuable insight about living in recovery.
- Get help if you need it. If you feel like things are spiraling out of control and you need additional support, there’s no shame in asking for it. Going back to detox or rehab for the holidays after a slip doesn’t mean you’ve failed and it may be the best thing for you during this time of year.