From a stereotypical perspective, the holiday season is filled with family, friends, seasonal decor and special recipes (at least according to every feel-good winter movie, right?).
But the reality is that it’s not all cheer between gift shopping, wrapping up end-of-year projects, seasonal affective disorder and holiday loneliness. Many people across the U.S. let loose with booze to decompress — and not just because it’s a popular time for gathering over drinks and celebrating during paid time off.
Hangovers aside, alcohol can cause mental health struggles, liver problems and sleep disturbances — not to mention: even binge drinking just during the holidays can be detrimental to one’s health. After writing about drinking booze for years (as my day job) and attending parties for years (for work and fun), I took a shot at a drink-free month ― and then I wrote about the benefits. My book, ”The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Month,” is about how to give up alcohol for 29-31 days, even if you have a holiday, celebration or stressful events on the calendar.
During that my first dry month in January 2017, and in the years since, I’ve discovered ways to de-stress that don’t involve wine, beer, spirits or cocktails. Whether you give up the bottle for good or simply drink less alcohol this holiday season, there are an abundance of options to help you decompress that don’t involve booze. Read on for tips and tricks:
Set the tone for yourself and others
Drinks are the norm at parties, dinners, and late-night chats with friends. In some cases, we don’t remember the evening. And in the morning, hangovers follow. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Make a plan for yourself. Envision what the next 24 hours will look like. That means scheduling a morning coffee with a family member, friend or workout (so I am held accountable for my plans).
“Before sobriety, Thanksgiving looked like a hangover — sleeping until the afternoon and showering right before we sat down to dinner,” said Elisa Hallerman, the founder of Recovery Management Agency. Hallerman, who is 20 years sober, now has a different Turkey-day schedule. She helps her sister cook, participates in storytelling, watches movies with her family, and takes a walk on the beach in the morning.
Aside from setting expectations for yourself, you also should set them with others. Corey O’Brien, 31, doesn’t remember Thanksgiving before getting sober. Now, after 10 years without alcohol, the Los Angeles-based dancer and TikTok personality is frank about his lifestyle. If offered a drink during the holidays (or anytime, year-round), he transparently tells people about his alcohol use disorder. “It’s an icebreaker and straight to the point,” he said.
Try a non-alcoholic option
In 2022, there are a plethora of nonalcoholic beers, wines (including sparkling ones), and spirits for every palate. You can buy ready-made, pre-mixed booze-free cocktails or shake and stir your own at home (if you feel creative).
O’Brien opts for Martinelli’s sparkling cider every holiday and celebration, while Hallerman’s go-to is hot tea so she can be present, warm and cozy. For a sweet treat, she prefers a more nostalgic beverage: hot chocolate. “The smell and the taste bring you right back to feeling like a kid again and just being happy with an extra marshmallow in your cup,” she said.
Baking or preparing another gift for the holidays is a way to enjoy the season and keep your brain busy without booze.
Prepare a booze-free gift you and everyone else can enjoy
Often guests bring bottles of wine for their hosts and hostesses. Instead, bring a dish, dessert or something else that everyone (including kids) can enjoy. Hallerman noted that it’s also nice to bring something homemade, which you may also benefit from. Research shows activities like doing crafts or baking promote a sense of relaxation.
“You can also stop and get beautiful flowers or a centerpiece for the table,” Hallerman said. “You can bring something fun for everyone to do, like a game or a huge puzzle.” Bonus points if you find a more personal gift to commemorate the day.
Pass the time with activities that engage your hands or brain
I’m a natural busybody: working out, cooking and catching up on streaming movies during the holidays is the best way (for me) to stay alcohol-free. As silly as it sounds — while everyone else is relaxing, drinking, not making concrete plans and letting their calendars rest — I tend to pack my days with fun things that keep me occupied.
“You might cook, prepare the table, or be of service in any way to the host,” Hallerman said. “I love to connect and play with the kids and leave all the grown-up worries at the door. Watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is an excellent pastime; then, of course, there’s football.”
O’Brien’s best advice is to eat everything in sight, second to connecting with his company. “The most important would be spending time with loved ones and having genuine and meaningful conversations,” he said. “Life can be so hectic, and the time I get to share with loved ones is precious.”
If you haven’t seen a friend or family member in a while, prepare some topics in advance, like stories you want to share, hot TV shows of the moment, or what everyone’s looking forward to in the coming year.
Phone a friend who supports you
To be blunt, sometimes these tips work flawlessly and sometimes you need a little extra support ― especially when you’re in unfamiliar territory (like visiting a new partner’s family) or seeing people who don’t understand your lifestyle choices (read: resisting a drink).
It’s important to lean on your circle for encouragement (and venting). Having someone to count on at your fingertips can be extremely helpful and comforting, whether that means bringing a buddy to dinner, excusing yourself to make a call from the bathroom or sending a text from the table.
And, next year, you can always plan your holidays differently if this is something you plan on doing again. “Spend the holidays in an environment that allows you to fill your soul with love,” Hallerman said.
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.