Why Are the Holidays Challenging for People in Recovery?

Photo of black woman looking stressed with Christmas tree in background

If you’re early in your recovery journey, this may be the first December you’ve faced in years without using alcohol or drugs. This may be your first time every entering the holiday season while following an active recovery plan.

You may be worried, overwhelmed, and a little bit intimidated – and that’s okay.

We get it: the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s ever can be filled with triggers that increase your risk of relapse. Your triggers might be people or places. They could be holiday music, or simply the sight of holiday decorations in stores, in front yards, or on the houses in your neighborhood.

In a word, the holidays are challenging. If you feel that way, you’re not alone. We can think of at least reasons the holidays create a special set of obstacles to overcome. The good thing? You can prepare ahead for success. And if you are successful, it will build your confidence for the seasons to come.

Staying on Your Program During the Holidays

Here are the three main reasons we want you to be prepared to face the challenges ahead.

Holiday Season: Three Big Obstacles

1. Family

There’s an old saying in recovery: your family knows how to push your buttons because they’re the ones who installed them. For most people, the most powerful, persistent, and emotional memories are directly related to our families or our childhood. In addition, many of these emotional memories form during the holidays. We remember the good and the not-so-good. Dinners filled with cheer, and dinners filled with awkward silences. We remember the sacred and secular rituals we participated in – some with negative emotions, some with positive emotions. It’s typically a mixed bag, and almost never simple. For most people in recovery, family dynamics are complex. That’s why they can challenge recovery and increase risk of relapse, and that’s why family is at the top of this list: be prepared to manage your emotions and deploy your most robust emotional regulation skills.

2. Goals, Aspirations, and Expectations

As you enter the holiday season and approach the New Year, you may be filled with anticipation and excitement about all the good things the season and the next year may bring. Perhaps you’ve been in recovery for 6-8 months or longer, and you’re feeling yourself: you have your recovery plan, you go to meetings, you take care of your body, you eat right, everything is working and on track. There are two possible problems you may face, though: just because you’re learning, growing, and changing, the people around you may not be. Meaning while you move forward, others are stuck: they may be friends, coworkers or family members.

Remember this: you do you, let them do them.

The second challenge: you may have bad days, brought on by the outright emotionality of the season. You may get overwhelmed and feel like all your work is about to slip through your fingers. That’s okay, too. When that happens, slow down, take a breath, check your recovery plan, call your sponsor, and go to a meeting. You have the tools, and you can do it: we believe in your strength, resiliency, and ability to get through the holidays with your recovery intact. Just because things don’t go exactly the way you want them to, it isn’t the end of the world. You adapt, overcome, and move forward with grace and gratitude.

3. The Parties and the Alcohol

Our holiday celebrations often revolve around getting together with family and friends and eating big, delicious meals. We have appetizers, we have multiple courses, we linger over dessert, and we sit and talk over coffee afterwards. The thing for people in recovery is this: at almost every step of the way, someone may offer you a drink, and it’s virtually guaranteed that the people around you will consume alcohol. That’s tough, and it increases your risk of relapse. The best way to do this – assuming you can’t skip every party or family get together you’re invited to – is to have a plan before going in. If you feel triggers, deploy the relapse prevention strategies you developed during treatment. Again: you can do it, and we believe you can make it through family get togethers – and the ubiquitous office parties – with your recovery fully intact.

Holidays and Recovery: Keeping Perspective

Here’s a good reality check: if this is your first December in recovery, it’s unrealistic to think every moment of every day will be perfect. That’s an unrealistic life expectation anyway, and even more important to remember as you enter this month of potential challenges. Expect some challenges, and they won’t surprise you.

We’re too optimistic to say prepare for the worst so you won’t be disappointed.

We prefer to say this instead:

Expect the challenges so you’re ready to meet them.

Here’s another dose of perspective, or our reality check number two: if you’re in recovery, that’s an amazing accomplishment to be proud of. You made a proactive choice to improve your life, and you take steps every day to make your vision of a better future a reality, rather than a dream. The holidays – as challenging as they can be – can get you one step closer to that vision.


Every day you face and manage a trigger without relapse is a success. Each time a family member says something that elicits a powerful emotion – and you process that emotion without the help of alcohol or drugs – is a victory. Every time you go to a holiday party and navigate the minefield of egg nogg, fancy holiday beverages, and intoxicated coworkers and make it to the end feeling strong, solid, and confident in your recovery, it’s a sign you’re making progress in the right direction.

It means you’re doing your work, your recovery plan is a good one, and you can be confident that in 2024, you’ll keep going it up. And when you get to New Year’s Eve, one option re. resolutions? Just make one: stay on your program.

The materials provided on the Pinnacle Blog are for information and educational purposes only. No behavioral health or any other professional services are provided through the Blog and the information obtained through the Blog is not a substitute for consultation with a qualified health professional. If you are in need of medical or behavioral health treatment, please contact a qualified health professional directly, and if you are in need of emergency help, please go to your nearest emergency room or dial 911.