Raise your hand if you’ve found yourself sitting at the dinner table during a holiday meal, staring at the sliced cranberry jelly fanned out on one of the good plates and willing yourself to bite your tongue and not comment on your great-uncle’s political opinions. (It’s not just me, right?)
The holidays can provide opportunities to reconnect with our loved ones, celebrate together, and build beautiful memories. But they can also be stressful, anxiety-filled, triggering, and awkward.
“Stress runs rampant between Thanksgiving and Christmas, making it an especially difficult period of time for those struggling with mental health and substance use issues. Families are a source of a lot of our pain, and the holidays are all about family,” says Evan Haines, recovering alcoholic and co-founder of Alo House Recovery Center. “We say this is the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of holidays for addicted people, between Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve.”
The bad side of holiday get-togethers can drive us to alcohol as a way to cope. But with more and more of us choosing to drink less or not drink at all—recent polling says that four in 10 drinking-age adults are drinking less than they did five years ago and 43% of adults don’t drink at all—what can we do if we don’t want a cocktail to be our coping mechanism? Here’s what the experts have to say.
Avoid stressful situations ASAP.
Not getting into stressful situations in the first place is a pretty good starting point. An AreaVibes survey found that 54% of millennials are incited to drink at family holiday gatherings, particularly when discussions about current events, their job situation (or lack thereof), and politics come up.
If you have a chance to shape how your family or friends celebrate the holidays, suggest that everyone gets out of the living room to do something active together. Alisa Kamis-Brinda, LCSW, who specializes in addiction at her psychotherapy practice Serenity Solutions, suggests getting outside by ice skating, skiing, or sledding in cold climates, or going hiking or playing sports, like a pick-up game of soccer, in warmer ones.
“Activities that involve strenuous physical activity are a great escape from the regular party scene around the holidays,” notes addiction specialist Dr. Indra Cidambi. “It’s important to realize that it’s not necessary to consume alcohol in order to have a great time—and that is an important learning for the kids as well.”
If you can’t get out of holiday dinner at Aunt Myrna’s, do your best to reduce anxiety and stressful situations while you’re there. If a debate arises, excuse yourself and go cuddle with the first dog you can find (and in lieu of a dog, go find the kids’ table—they have about the same level of energy as puppies and also won’t ask you about your political views). Get up-close and personal with the snack table’s healthiest offerings. Volunteer for a task like setting the table or washing dishes.
“Know what your triggers are and develop ways of coping with them without using alcohol. For example, if small talk with Aunt Susan who constantly asks invasive questions about your relationship and lifestyle choices [are] on the horizon, then anticipate ways you might handle that conversation. Getting out in front of your anxiety and discomfort can help you to manage it without becoming so dysregulated that you are tempted to reach for a drink,” says Dr. Megan Johnson, clinical psychologist at Quincee Gideon.
Be upfront about your preferences.
Social pressure to drink exists—that’s why we all had to sit through those anti-peer-pressure “you’re too cool to binge drink” talks in middle school. If you’re worried about feeling coerced into doing a champagne toast with everyone or being teased by your uncle for not shotgunning a beer, consider telling your loved ones beforehand that you’re not planning on drinking or that you’re trying to drink less and that you’d appreciate it if they’d respect that.
You can be as detailed or as vague as you want to be in your explanation and you can choose to tell everyone or just tell one person. “As long as we’re at peace with our decision not to drink or use, it’s really no one else’s business. And if someone is bothered by you not drinking, that’s really their problem, and not yours,” says Haines.
If you think your host or hostess will receive it well, let them know your drinking decisions ahead of time, so they can make sure to have non-boozy options for you. Alternatively, you can bring something that you’ll be able to drink. If sparking grape juice doesn’t do it for you, get the ingredients for a fun booze-free cocktail. Nutritionists Diana Licalzi and Kerry Criss, who are the authors of Drinking for Two, suggest the sour mock-a-rita, which is made by shaking together ¼ cup of lime juice, 2 tbsp orange juice, 2 tsp agave nectar or sweetener of choice, and ¾ cup coconut water, then serving with ice in salt-and-lime garnished glasses.
If you don’t want to tell everyone about your decision but also don’t want to be put on the spot to say yes to a drink, Dr. Cidambi suggests walking around the party with a glass of something with your hand, even if it’s just juice or sparkling water.
In the best-case scenario, you’ll be able to share your choice to not drink or to drink less with your hosts and your family, and they’ll all support you and maybe even want to get in on a sober (or soberish) lifestyle themselves. In the worst-case scenario, they won’t get it or accept it, which means you’ll have a better idea of who loves and supports you and deserves to spend time with you—and who doesn’t.
Above all, prep early.
Holiday stress is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. As Dr. Jeff Nalin, clinical psychologist and founder of Paradigm Malibu Treatment Center explains, stress can come from family interactions or any number of other factors: “For many people, the holiday period is associated with financial woes, social pressures, tight work deadlines and shopping burdens, among others. The season may also be difficult for those who have suffered the loss of a friend or family member, or those who may be geographically separated from loved ones.”
All of those stressors can be managed best when you have time to get out in front of them. Make your holiday shopping budget early and buy gifts over the course of a month versus in a mad-dash the day before the holidays. Decide how many social events your wallet, your sleep schedule, and your patience can handle, and RSVP “yes” for only that many. And if you’re mourning the loss of a loved one, give yourself time and space to grieve.
Let yourself enjoy the holidays in the ways that are healthiest for you. If that doesn’t include a glass of red wine, that’s all the better.