The holidays are a time of festivities, joy, family, and friends. It can also be a time of stress, consumerism, high levels of demand, and lots of libations. Whether it be food preparation, decorations, shopping for gifts, cleaning, entertaining, or planning family events – these can all add to the stress of the season.
Whether at the company party or over dinner with the family, the holiday season introduces many opportunities to drink. In fact, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, the distilled spirits industry makes more than 25% of its profits between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
Add a global pandemic to the mix and our chances of coping with alcohol increase significantly. For some, the added stress of the holidays or painful memories can trigger compulsive drinking. For those who already engage in problematic drinking, the stress can worsen drinking behaviors.
The good news is that we can navigate family events to make them more bearable (including avoiding them altogether) and we can create alcohol moderation or abstinence plans to help us manage how much we drink.
For some of us, the holidays are the only opportunity we get to spend quality time with loved ones and catch up. But these occasions are often accompanied by emotional pitfalls and triggers – and that’s normal.
How to Cope with Family Gatherings
Instead of drinking your way through that awkward conversation with your uncle, here are some tips on how to cope up with family gatherings over the holidays:
1. Have a Plan
To prevent yourself from getting caught in an uncomfortable situation, make a list of topics and people you want to avoid. Speak up when you feel uncomfortable and offer an alternative topic to talk about. Make a list of topics you feel comfortable with so you don’t have to come up with one on the spot.
Consider meeting with relatives or friends before gatherings to hash out past conflicts or resentments. Meeting in a public space like a coffee shop to apologize or communicate your needs can be more disarming than attempting the conversation under the influence of alcohol.
2. Prioritize Your Self-Care
Don’t negate your need for sleep, exercise, and healthy foods over the holidays. You will have access to more patience, grace, and empathy if you’re feeling well rested. Your stress levels will be lower if you’ve had a chance to get some cardio before a triggering family gathering. And while the holidays are an excuse to indulge in our favorite treats, make sure you’re also getting the nutrients your brain needs to produce mood regulating neurotransmitters.
3. Choose a Safe Place to Escape
If you’re familiar with the venue, pick a safe place you can go to when you feel overwhelmed. Have an alternate location where you know you can take a moment to calm yourself down without anyone interfering. This may mean having an exit plan if you become too triggered. Consider staying in a hotel or with a friend and renting a car so you don’t have to depend on relatives to get around.
4. Don’t Take Negative Comments to Heart
It is a reality that some of our family members criticize a little too much. The key is to not take negative comments to heart. It’s not going to be easy, but doing so can lessen your stress and anxiety. If the commentary becomes unbearable, set a boundary and let your family member know you’d rather not hear their opinions about you. And if boundary setting doesn’t stop them, be prepared to leave. You’ll ultimately gain more respect by walking away than taking the bait.
5. Small Talk Is Not Your Enemy
Small talk can be awkward but it can also be a great way to get reacquainted with a family member you haven’t seen in a while or someone you want to get to know better. Don’t be pressured to always know what to say, just enjoy the conversations that happen naturally. And if you can’t stand another round of “How has the pandemic changed your life?” check out these 36 questions known to increase closeness.
6. Create Boundaries
You have to expect that nosy relatives may ask too many questions or deeply personal ones. If you are caught in a situation with a loved one who pries too much, remember you are under no obligation to answer their questions. Politely steer the conversation in a different direction or kindly tell them you’d rather not answer.
In addition to conversation boundaries, you may also need to implement physical boundaries with your family. This means considering staying at a hotel instead of a relative’s home or significantly limiting how much time you spend with your family. It’s ok if you can only stay for an hour or two. Remember that you’re an adult capable of making your own decisions based on your needs and preferences. These choices may lead to awkward conversations or feelings of disappointment, but your emotional safety and comfort are worth it.
The holidays may be a stressful time, but they are also a wonderful time to share with the people you love—including yourself. Make the most of this time with those you care about. Create an intention to connect with someone over the holiday; that may even be yourself.
Create an Alcohol Moderation or Abstinence Plan
In addition to managing family dynamics, having an alcohol moderation or abstinence plan will help you manage urges to drink.
But before you decide whether moderation or abstinence is best for you, it’s important to assess your relationship with alcohol. Drastically cutting off alcohol may have negative effects on your mood and your physical safety. Ask yourself, how and when do you use alcohol? How does it make you feel? What needs are you trying to meet by drinking?
If you notice that reduced drinking leads to trembling, altered consciousness, hallucinations, or an irregular heart beat, contact your doctor right away. These are signs of severe alcohol withdrawal and could lead to death. It’s actually better for you to not stop drinking completely and to go through a medicated detox instead.
Once you’ve decided you want to reduce or take a break from drinking, make note of your intentions, hopes, and goals. How long of a break will you take? How many drinks per day or week do you want to limit yourself to? How will you know your efforts have been successful? How will you feel? What feedback will you receive from loved ones? Revisit these questions whenever you feel like having a drink.
Take time to think about what will trigger you to drink during the holidays. One of the top reasons people drink is stress. Because alcohol is a depressant and releases GABA in the brain our nerves calm down once we take a sip, allowing us to feel more relaxed.
Be mindful of who you choose to spend time with, set a spending limit, schedule breaks from work and social events, and be mindful of the media you’re consuming. If it feels safe, let your friends know that you’re on a drinking break and opt for activities that don’t involve drinking. If you’re going to be around alcohol, make sure you have a tasty, non-alcoholic beverage option. This would be a great time to try Monday Gin, Seedlip, or one of Athletic Brewing Company‘s delicious craft non-alcoholic beers.
The best way to manage urges to drink while taking a break is to come up with fun, compelling alternatives. Distract yourself by doing things not related to drinking and alcohol – exercising, cooking, biking or reading. It’s also helpful to talk it out with someone you trust. Acknowledge the feeling of having the urge to drink and share your thoughts and feelings about it with someone who understands. Most importantly, remind yourself why you are taking a break or cutting back on drinking. What values are you honoring by changing your relationship with alcohol?
Abstinence from all alcoholic beverages may be the best strategy. But for those who don’t want to abstain or who simply want to be mindful of how much alcohol they consume, moderation is key.
Tips for moderating alcohol during the holidays
- Drink on a full stomach. Pair your wine or beer with delicious cheeses. Don’t forget snacks when planning a cocktail party. Plan for dinner before heading to the company holiday party.
- Plan your night before you start drinking. Think about how many hours you will be partying and set a limit of how many drinks you’d like to have. Remember it takes approximately one hour to metabolize one drink. And one drink is probably less than you think: a 12 oz beer, a 5 oz glass of wine, or 1.5 oz of 80 proof liquor. Tell someone supportive about your plan—a spouse, friend, coworker, or family member. Ask them to check in with you to help keep you accountable.
- Count your drinks. If you’re drinking beer, keep the bottle caps in your pocket or purse to help you keep count. Keep pennies in your left pocket and move one over to your right pocket each time you have a cocktail. Send yourself a text each time you order a new drink.
- Drink a full glass of water between each alcoholic beverage. Hydrate and keep hangovers at bay!
- Dress up a non-alcoholic beverage like a cocktail. Cranberry juice with a lime looks just like a Cape Cod. Same goes for Sprite and soda water. If you’re drinking beer, refill your bottle with water. No one will know the difference!
- Lighten up! Turn that glass of wine into a spritzer with some soda water. Go for a lower ABV beer. Instead of a shot of tequila, how about adding some ice and ginger ale? If you start with a cocktail, consider switching to beer. The lower alcohol content will be absorbed more slowly.
- Arrive late to the event or leave early. Seeing others intoxicated may motivate you to moderate. Plus, it will likely be very entertaining! Make an intention to mingle for 30 minutes before you start drinking. Set the tone for the night.
- Sip, don’t gulp your drink. Practice mindful drinking. Describe the notes of that IPA on your nose (“Ah, yes. It smells of a warm summer day frolicking in the grass.”) and on your palette (“And tastes of toasty, roasted hops.”) Write a mental review of each drink you have. Be mindful about the experience the drink is creating for you. Is it sweet or sour? Cold or room temperature? Does it conjure memories?
- Pay attention to self-talk. Are you trying to convince yourself to drink more because “it’s the holidays” and you “deserve it?” Check in with yourself before each drink. Do you really want another one? Will it get in the way of any plans you’ve made for the rest of the evening or tomorrow?
- Don’t forget to have fun! Focus on your friends, family, coworkers, and the setting. Let the experience engross you. Dance!
This should go without saying, but please do not drink and drive. It is estimated that 1,200 people will die this holiday season due to drunk or buzzed driving. Always designate a sober driver or make other arrangements to get home after a night of drinking.
If you think you have a drinking problem or are struggling with moderation, there are many ways to get help. Self-help workbooks like Responsible Drinking, How to Change Your Drinking, Over the Influence, and (shameless self-promotion) Power Over Addiction can help you interrupt problematic behaviors with alcohol. (Full disclosure, I make a small commission if you purchase these books via these links).
Self-help groups like AA, Refuge Recovery, and SMART Recovery are widely available if abstinence is your long-term goal. If you prefer to try moderation, check out Moderation Management groups or look for a harm reduction therapy group in your area. Interacting with people who are going through the same experience as you is a big help. The sense of belongingness, understanding, and compassion are big factors in improving one’s relationship with alcohol.
Psychotherapy sessions – individual therapy and groups, can be especially helpful if you’ve had a long-term problematic relationship with alcohol or if you’re also dealing with other psychological problems like depression, anxiety, or trauma. Find a licensed professional in your area who specializes in addiction or alcohol treatment and who will support your chosen goal of either moderation or abstinence. And it’s ok if you don’t know yet! They should be able to help you with that choice.
From everyone on our team, we hope you find peace, joy, and tons of rest this holiday season!Learn More