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  • Writer's pictureKim May

Ho, ho, ugh: Holidays and Substance Use

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

Holidays and substance use

Perhaps the holidays are one of your favorite times of the year. Or, maybe you dread them the way other people dread Tax Day. Regardless of how you feel about them, it is also likely that COVID-19 has disrupted some aspect of the holiday season for you as well. Even under the best of circumstances, it is not uncommon for people to increase their substance use or relapse during the holiday season.

And let’s face it. Nothing about 2020 is really the best of circumstances…unless of course you happened to own a lot of Clorox stock heading into the pandemic. And if that is the case, congratulations on your amazing foresight.

So, how do we manage to be ok during this time of the year? How do we keep our substance use from spiraling or refrain from relapsing? While no plan is fool proof, having no plan is well a little foolish. Below are some guidelines to help you take care of yourself this holiday season.

1. Manage your expectations. Which direction you need to manage them is dependent on you. If you fall into the “holidays suck” camp, do what you can to avoid catastrophizing or exaggerating it. Remind yourself this time of year is fleeting.

If this time of year is your favorite, try to tap into what you like about them, while acknowledging that you might have to make some concessions due to the pandemic. Try to enjoy the aspects that you can and let go of the disappointment. We tend to spend too much time planning or dreading, and not enough time just being present this time of the year.

2. Have an escape plan. If you have plans, have an escape plan. Plan for needing to take a break from festivities and people. Feeling trapped, either at a work function or with your Aunt and her thousand questions is a great trigger for using. So, plan ahead—how will you leave if you need to? How will you redirect or end uncomfortable conversations? How will you end that family zoom call in which it feels like time has stopped? A plan can feel very empowering and make the actual event more manageable.

3. Manage your free time. Many people have time off this time of year. What are you going to do with it? Frequently, our substance use increases when our free time increases. So, plan ahead on ways to structure your time and fill your days. Sometimes sticking to your regular routines and then filling in the blanks can be helpful (even if the blanks are just long stretches of Netflix).

4. Set boundaries. Just because all your cousins want to know about your drinking does not mean you have to tell them. Just because your favorite co-worker does not want to go to the holiday party alone does not mean you have to go too. Just because it is the holiday season does not mean you have to stop taking care of yourself. Think about where you will be and who you will be around, and then determine what types of boundaries you need to feel secure and respected.

5. Redefine the holidays. December 25th is Christmas. It is also just a random Friday. If you are going to be alone, or if the holidays are hard, redefine what they mean to you. Maybe December 25th is the day you go eat Chinese food and walk around town like you have it to yourself.

6. Avoid confrontation. It is tempting to argue politics with that one family member…you know the one (or the many depending on your family). It is tempting to try to re-explain harm reduction to your sister again (like seriously, why is it so hard for her to grasp?!). Or to fall into the same argument with your partner again. Try to resist the urge. Don’t take the bait. Take a breath, say something kind. You might still feel angry, but odds are good you will feel better for not having engaged the non-sense.

7. Use your therapist! Have your therapist help you plan for managing your triggers and take care of yourself during the holidays. Request additional sessions if needed. If you will be traveling, find out if phone check ins or telehealth are available in case you need it.

Need more support?

If you are ready to examine your use or need support to make changes, Substance Use Therapy is available. Contact today to schedule your no-charge 30-minute consultation.

In case you need access to 24/7 mental health and crisis support during the holidays, you have options:

Local Resources:

· Travis County: 512-472-4357 (Integral Care) / Deaf/Hard of hearing, use VRS TTY: 512-703-1395

· Bastrop, Burnet, Caldwell, Williamson Counties: 1-800-841-1255 (Bluebonnet Trail Community Services)

· Hays County: 1-877-466-0660 (Hill Country MHDD Centers)

National Resources:

· National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (Para llamadas en Espanol: 1-888-628-9454)

· National Crisis Text Line: Text NAMI to 741741

· Trevor Project Hotline: 866-488-7386 (Resources and hotline for LGBTQ youth)

· Veteran's Crisis Line 1-800-273-TALK (8255) TTY: 1-800-799-4889

· SAMHSA's National Helpline 1-800-662-HELP (4357) (TTY: 1-800-487-4889)

Whatever you are facing, you don’t have to face it alone.


About the Author:

Kimberly May, LPC-S, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, burn-out, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation. *Note: telephone and telehealth sessions are currently available.

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