Many addicts and alcoholics relapse after the holidays. For some this is caused by the stress of travel, for others it’s caused by financial stress, and for some relapse comes as a result of heavily strained interpersonal or family relationships; among many other reasons. Fortunately, there are a number of tips that addicts and alcoholics in recovery can follow in order to ensure that their post-holiday “blues” don’t lead down the dangerous road to relapse.
Limit Intake of Sugar and Fatty Foods
Stocking stuffers and other gifts often consist of large boxes or bags of candy, gum, cookies and other baked goodies, etc. Most people – addicts or not – tend to justify a “splurge” in eating these types of foods in the name of the holiday season. However, for addicts, this isn’t such a good idea, and there’s a surprising reason why: Sugar acts like heroin in the brain. (1)
That’s right: sugar causes dopamine releases in a process similar to that of opiate drug abuse. This means that for many addicts, a sudden holiday sugar bender could become a gateway to a real opiate (or other substance) relapse. This includes taking all that candy home if you traveled and eating it over the next few days. If anything, limit yourself to only one or two pieces per day, or an even better idea might be to “re-gift” the candy or sweets to someone who isn’t at risk of relapse.
Roasted duck or goose, mashed potatoes and gravy, home-made stuffing with bird drippings, candied yams, pumpkin and apple pie: all of these items are staples at many holiday dinners, and generally leftovers extend deliciously into the next few days. However, many people complain that they don’t feel so good after the holidays: fatigue, stomach upset, headache and other symptoms are common. Often, these symptoms are caused by eating fatty foods.
Because many addicts and alcoholics in recovery suffer from occasional or persistent post acute withdrawal symptoms, feeling slightly ill like this after the holidays can exacerbate existing PAWS symptoms or cause a quiet case of the condition to flare up again. This is because most symptoms related to PAWS are caused by the brain’s reduced capacity to manage stress. Therefore, stress on the body in the form of junk food for a few days coupled with the stress of travel, hectic holiday schedules and the “in-laws” could have a significant impact on the well-being of the person in question.
We’ve all heard many times to avoid fatty foods during the holidays, but few people do. It’s part of our tradition; for better or worse. So the best policy for people in recovery is to limit the amount of the types of foods listed above. Consider eating just vegetables or salad instead of mashed potatoes and gravy. Or if you’re hosting, skip the mashed and make roasted rosemary potatoes, or lean ham instead of a fatty duck or goose, or grilled asparagus instead of yams.
It’s possible that many people might consider these less-fatty types of foods to be breaking with tradition; and they’re right. But as Americans we’ve often broken with traditions that we later learned were not the best choices.
Don’t Stress About Gifts or Money
Stressing about whether your gifts – both given and received – are “good enough” is a poor attitude, and certainly not one that promotes gratitude and fellowship; both of which are critical components of a long term recovery plan. Likewise, if the person you are giving a gift to is overly concerned about how much you spent on it or whether it measures up to the gift they got you, then it’s probably time that you re-evaluate your relationship. Remember; it’s not about the gifts: Christmas is many things to many people, but what’s inside those wrapped packages isn’t as important as the people who love you and try to show it in their own way.
Whether you are rich or low-income, Christmas can be stressful for financial reasons: the buying of gifts, decorations, meals, travel expenses: all of this can be outrageously expensive. The only way to avoid this is to develop – and stick to – a holiday budget. Whatever your budget is, if you stick to it there will be no regret later and you won’t amass a mountain of Christmas debt. Even a small budget can be turned into wonderful gifts with a little creativity and ingenuity.
Starting your holiday planning with a reasonable budget will make it easy to see exactly what you’ll be able to afford to do, and what won’t make financial sense for you right now.
Keep in mind that if holiday expenses cause a serious burden on you, then you should reconsider what you’re doing. No one that cares about you is going to want you to create a financial burden – and emotional stress – in the name of holiday spending.
Let Go of Family Conflict
The reality of the holidays is that for many people, there will be family conflict. This is especially true for people who are in the early stages of recovery and might have insulted or hurt family members while they were actively using. Patience and restraint must be used whether the conflict is an old one or one that erupts from recent events. Even if there is an outburst, it’s important to let it go when you go home, or when everyone leaves if you are hosting.
If a major family conflict occurred over the holidays and you’re fuming about it or feeling hurt, consider taking some type of constructive action in order to resolve the situation (or at least to simply let it go). This could include writing family members a letter – even if you don’t send it – or it could involve calling them, apologizing for the conflict even if you were in the right, offering to try to work things out, or calling a friend to talk about it.
Whatever you do, once the holidays are over, just let it go. As a person in recovery you’re taking things just one day at a time, so hanging onto family conflict every day just doesn’t make sense.
Prepare to Return to Work or School
Don’t get caught unprepared once it’s time to go back to work or school: this can be a major source of stress. Always allot sufficient time for travel, as well as time enough to do laundry, prepare meals, and gather documents or whatever else you need to do in order to re-assume your normal daily routine.
All too often we return from holiday travels and then spend the remaining time we have off eating leftovers and watching television as a way to “defuse” from the events of the last few days. But when the morning to return to normal comes we awake to find we’re not at all ready, resulting in some degree of chaos for the next day or two while we try to readjust.
This mistake can be avoided by creating a simple list of things you need to do before you travel or host for the holidays, and a list of things you need to do afterward. Then ensure that you actually do these things when it’s all said and done before you relax for the rest of your time off.
This planning is especially important for people in recovery who may be suffering from cognitive or memory symptoms related to PAWS.
Finally, remember that once the holidays are over, you will have a fresh year ahead of you – a year to accomplish goals, learn new things, and push yourself to be better, smarter, kinder, stronger and wiser. So instead of feeling glum post-holidays, you can feel as excited about the coming year as children do about Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
1.) Nicole M. Avena, Pedro Rada, and Bartley G. Hoebel Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake 05/18/2007