Holiday Survival Guide
The Holidays can be a trying time. Last year, we faced a raging pandemic that put many Americans' holiday plans on hold. Public Health Authorities advised people to cancel their usual gatherings and stay home rather than traveling and spreading Covid-19. And while the virus is still present in deadly variants, vaccines have prompted a return to normal to a significant degree.
That means Holiday celebrations and gatherings will be occurring this year in far greater volume than in 2020. And while that may be a good thing, it isn't without risk. The obvious danger of the virus shouldn't be ignored. But perhaps the most considerable risk that many will face is the nation's raging drug epidemic, which was worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic.
As we try to move forward, we see the fallout from a pandemic that caused more death in one year than at any time in U.S. history. These indirect consequences may look like different problems altogether. Addiction, for instance, was a severe issue before Covid-19 and will continue to be one as the virus subsides. But the pandemic didn't help.
When we look at the anticipation of these upcoming holidays after not celebrating last year, it's easy to see how things could get out of hand. With addiction rates at some of the highest points ever, these holidays could be tragic times instead of the celebratory events they're intended to be.
The Holidays are already a recipe for overindulgence. Many people's holiday plans involve consumption of at least alcohol, which can easily lead to misuse. Those who already struggle with addiction may find that the holidays bring up negative emotions or additional scrutiny from family members. They may use even more to cope with the negative feelings or try to hide their drug use. All these things can lead to using substances when one might otherwise not.
Tips to Survive the Holiday
Knowing the above data, we can approach the holidays with more caution and save lives. Here are a few simple ways to reduce the risks associated with substance misuse during these trying times:
- Find a balance- The stresses of the holidays can be felt heavily among those who have few family or friends. Loneliness can easily lead to feelings of sadness and despair, leading to cravings or the tendency to misuse substances to cope with these emotions. Similarly, many people become overwhelmed with visitors or family members and don't allow themselves to decompress or have any space to themselves. Finding a balance during the holidays is crucial because it can prevent both extremes and minimize stress. Reach out to loved ones and friends if you are lonely or don't have plans. Isolation can be a significant trigger. Also, make sure to take time for yourself, and don't feel bad about telling people that you can't attend something or have other plans.
- Have a plan- If you have a history of addiction or substance misuse, having a plan can mean the difference between relapse and maintaining recovery. One can expect that most holiday events will have at least alcohol available and being consumed. If you're concerned about slipping up, start with a plan. A good plan includes how you will handle instances where you may be tempted to indulge or at risk of relapsing. It will also involve removing yourself from the situation and eliminating the stressors that are triggering you. For example, you may decide to tell everyone that you are a designated driver for the night, so they don't continue to offer you substances or pressure you. Or, you might set a time to leave that's relatively early, so you aren't tempted to stay and drink. Each person's plan may be different, but having that simple structure can provide stability and confidence.
- Use a buddy- If you have a close friend aware of your concerns, it may be good to enlist their help in making sure you have a safe and fun holiday season. You can let them know that you may need their support and ask them to check in on you regularly throughout the holidays. Just having someone to talk to can make a big difference. Another use of the buddy system is taking them with you if you go out. You can ask them to intervene if they sense that you are tempted to relapse or simply standby for your cue to leave.
- Ask for Help- Anyone struggling emotionally during the holidays should acknowledge their feelings and reach out for help. This is not always easy and, in most circumstances, quite difficult. However, it is impossible to force yourself to be happy. Recognize the emotions you are experiencing and find support, whether in person, through a group, or professionally. Part of this involves always being realistic about how you are feeling. It's "Okay, not to be okay," but you put yourself in a dangerous situation if you ignore or downplay what you are experiencing
- Be prepared for change- Families change and grow along with family tradition. Be realistic about what to expect and accept everyone for who they are. The tallest hurdle is putting aside differences. The chances are that the person you are talking with is struggling with something themselves. The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone, and the family dynamic may be different or strained. Understanding that things might be different this year can be an advantage when faced with these changes.
A Fatal Forecast
The National Safety Council estimated that 417 people might be killed on U.S. roads during the Thanksgiving holiday period. Since the day before Thanksgiving is known for its high volume of travel and alcohol consumption, there are increased risks. Alcohol was a persistent factor in most fatal crashes in 2019.
Furthermore, the National Safety Council estimates 278 may be killed on roads over Christmas and New Year's Day. Alcohol is a significant crash factor around all holidays. During the 2018 Christmas Day holiday period, 37% of fatal crashes involved alcohol. That rose to 39% for the New Year's holiday period.
Whether it is Thanksgiving, or holidays taking place in December and January, there are increased risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption and drug use.
Thanksgiving: Dinners & DUI's
Thanksgiving creates a certain amount of stress for many people, especially addicts and recovering addicts. Family gatherings generate a plethora of emotions that are not always easy to manage. Holidays like Thanksgiving also invite excessive drinking and alcohol consumption. Also known as Drinksgiving, Blackout Wednesday, or Black Wednesday, this holiday has become the first drinking weekend of the holiday season. Many believe that it rivals New Year's and St. Patrick's Day in the amount of alcohol people consume.
Some of the factors contributing to the night before Thanksgiving include people who are off work for the holiday and want to let loose. College students who have just come of age and return home and want to celebrate. In addition, many people are bracing for awkward or uncomfortable family gatherings the next day. Celebrations like this normalize binge drinking, contribute to problematic drinking, increase the risk of a DUI charge, and is potentially fatal.
December Holidays: Presents, Parties, and Pressure
Anyone coping with alcohol or drug addiction can have a difficult time over the December holiday season. Many individuals experience high amounts of chronic or temporary stress during Christmas Hanukkah, for example. Other scenarios involve individuals blowing off steam during the holidays. There are underlying reasons that contribute to increased drinking levels—for example, gift-giving and financial stress and having strained family relationships during the holidays. Adult children are often expected to travel home for the holidays, which can reignite negative family dynamics.
Additionally, depression and anxiety during these celebrations have a significant impact on how people celebrate. The most common reasons for seasonal sadness were finances, strained family relationships, missing a family member who died, and being alone. These issues can lead to excessive alcohol consumption and drug use. Young people primarily, for example, engage in risky drinking and alcohol consumption during the holiday season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 13.5% of teens get involved in trends like binge drinking on occasions like Christmas.
Many of the problems with alcohol during these holidays are connected to holiday work functions. For example, it is not uncommon to see co-workers or supervisors share inappropriate personal details about themselves or other colleagues. Impaired driving becomes an issue, and there can be issues with abusive behavior. While the holidays are joyous, they can be an emotionally loaded time for many people.
New Year's: Resolutions and Breaking Habits
Regardless of how the new year is celebrated, the holiday typically involves excessive alcohol consumption and drug use. The use of substances during New Year's leads to increased risks on U.S. roadways, and the chances of a fatal crash involving a DUI increase 129%. In addition, New Year's Day is also dangerous for pedestrians because of being hungover and still intoxicated drivers. This holiday marks the end of the holiday season. And while the year tends to end with a string of bad habits, the good news is that New Year's resolutions usually revolve around breaking bad habits or creating good ones.
Unfortunately, some individuals are unsure or in denial about some of their bad habits. The end of the year onslaught of parties and questionable decisions may not be a good touchstone for a person's behavior. I some cases, it may lead someone to ignore unhealthy habits and justify them as part of the celebration. One effective method for establishing if you have an issue with drug and alcohol use is participating in "Dry" January. This involves individuals abstaining from alcohol (or drug use) for the entirety of the month.
Taking a month off from drinking alcohol is beneficial. The process could help you step back and examine your relationships with alcohol. In addition, you may learn you are dependent on this drug to manage and cope with stress. Moreover, you may discover you feel better and think more clearly when not drinking alcohol. Succeeding with Dry January involves creating an environment where you will succeed, such as one that does not involve excessive amounts of alcohol. Recruit a friend or family member to do the challenge and schedule a calendar of things you love to do.
Warning Signs of Holiday Substance Use
There are early warning signs and symptoms to watch for, especially among people who have an alcohol use disorder. Alcohol becomes an emotional crutch for people who suffer from stress while going about their daily routine. Binge drinking becomes an escape plan from this type of stress, and holiday traditions are an excuse to drink excessively. It is common to witness family members or friends go overboard with their drinking and see them not realize this until it is too late.
Additionally, the most common warning sign is seeing a person not stop drinking once they start. Every family has a story or loved one that overindulges during the holidays, but this could be a clear indicator of an underlying problem with alcohol. Moreover, they could let their responsibilities slide and place more importance on drinking during the holidays.
Finally, it is common to notice that some individuals are not comfortable in social situations without alcohol. You may even have a family member that will not come to a social gathering because they know their drinking habits are frowned upon by another family member.
The Holidays don't have to be a stressful time. They are intended as a time of celebration and gathering, and those with addiction struggles should be able to enjoy them without risking relapse. But the reality is, the holidays can be some of the most challenging times. Thankfully, many communities also organize sober activities, and these may be a better option for those who don't want to expose themselves to the risks associated with many holiday events.