By Lori Ryland, Ph.D., LP, CAADC, BCBA-D, chief clinical officer at Pinnacle Treatment Centers
During the winter holidays, many of us travel home to visit our families. For some, it’s the one time of year we get to see and spend time with our extended family. Aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins – if you have a big family, it’s likely the holidays are a big deal. The same goes for small families. The winter holidays are every bit as magical for a family of three as they are for a family of 10. Given that understanding family dynamics plays a big part in recovery, and people in recovery spend a significant amount of time identifying and working through family issues, we should recognize the fact that the holidays are often filled with powerful – and sometimes painful and challenging – memories and emotions.
In other words, the holidays can be a minefield of triggers.
If you’re in recovery, you know what a trigger is. For those of you reading this article who aren’t in recovery, here’s a quick definition from the American Psychological Association (APA):
“A trigger is a stimulus that elicits a reaction. For example, an event could be a trigger for a memory of a past experience and an accompanying state of emotional arousal.”
For people in recovery from an alcohol or substance use disorder, the “state of emotional arousal” elicited by a trigger is a state that can endanger their sobriety. Triggers can start a cascade of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that have a very real chance of leading to relapse.
That’s also an important thing for people who aren’t in recovery to know about people who are in recovery. There are specific sights, sounds, places, and activities that can cause an individual with an alcohol or substance use disorder to crave – and seek – alcohol or drugs. We don’t suggest you need to walk on eggshells around a family member in recovery, but it will help if you know the holidays can be hard for them.
In fact, people in recovery might spend more time working on trigger management strategies and tactics than they do working on family issues – although it depends on the individual, of course, and the two are often related. That’s why the holidays are a tricky time for people in recovery. Part of healing is learning to process the emotions related to family, and another part is learning how to avoid situations that include triggers. It’s a conundrum that people in recovery need to unravel if they want to spend time with their family over the holidays.
A quick note on that: spending time with family is not always the best choice for a person in recovery. If that’s you, then you likely know and understand that already. If you’re in recovery and unsure about whether family time is good for you or not, we recommend talking to your sponsor, if you attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings. If you receive support from a professional, licensed counselor or therapist, we recommend taking their advice, even if it conflicts with what a sponsor may say.
Now, back to our topic: how you can handle your holiday triggers. We’ll now offer our four best suggestions.
Four Tips for Managing Holiday Triggers
1. Know They’re Coming.
We put this first because it may be the most important one. Triggers can ambush you – and everyone knows that, by definition, an ambush is dangerous. It’s something unexpected that interrupts whatever you’re doing and changes the situation in an extreme way. That’s what happens with emotions elicited by triggers. You’re going about your business, and then boom. It hits. An environmental cue changes your internal emotional balance in an instant. It might be a sound or a smell. It might be an offhand comment from a family member. It might be a story you’ve heard a thousand times. But this time it hits you all wrong, and suddenly you’re sad, angry, and anxious all at the same time – and all those emotions make you crave alcohol or drugs. Like an ambush in the military sense, you suddenly find yourself in a life-threatening situation. That may sound like an over-the-top exaggeration to someone who’s not in recovery, but trust us, we’re not saying that for shock value. For many people, staying sober and in recovery is a matter of life and death. That’s why this tip is first, and that’s why it’s so important. If you know the triggers are coming, then you need to be ready. And we think the best way to be ready is by following our advice in the next tip.
2. Stay on Your Program.
The holidays are a time to double down on all your top-line recovery activities. It’s critical to understand that if you travel home, you should think ahead and create conditions that support sobriety for the duration of your stay. The same goes for the schedule changes that happen on the holidays anyway, regardless of whether you travel. The world enters holiday mode, and schedules get all topsy-turvy, but that doesn’t mean you can put your recovery on hold or that recovery has a holiday mode. It means the opposite. What it means is that if two meetings a day are what keep you on your program, you need to find a way to go to two meetings a day. In 2021, that might mean in person meetings, or it might mean video meetings – but your sobriety is worth it. It also means that if exercise and working out every day keep you on your program, then you need to figure out a way to get those workouts in wherever you are for the holidays. We’ll repeat: the holidays are a time to double down – not back off – of your daily recovery routine.
3. Make It Non-Negotiable.
There are things you need to do to keep yourself healthy and sober that may take you away from family activities. You probably won’t need to miss an entire family event, but if you need to go to an evening meeting and miss the first part of a neighborhood get-together, stay firm. Go to the meeting and explain to your family that’s what you have to do to stay healthy and on track. If you need to exercise every morning and miss part of family breakfast, go get that exercise. Explain to your family that’s what you have to do – and that it’s every bit as important to your continued sobriety as going to a meeting or talking to your sponsor on the phone. If you don’t travel home for the holidays, then make your program non-negotiable with yourself. Don’t bargain with yourself about whether you need to journal, need to go to a meeting, need to go to a yoga class, or need to go for that evening walk. If these activities kept you on track until now, then don’t talk yourself out of them. You might think of this as a version of dance with who brought you. However, we all know life happens, and circumstances may conspire against you. Heavy traffic might mean you miss an in-person meeting. You may lose internet connection and miss a virtual meeting, and that’s okay. Roll with the punches, trust the resiliency skills you’ve developed, and get back to your routine as soon as you can.
4. Use the Phone.
Whether you stay home or travel, and whether pandemic precautions affect your behavior or not, it’s important to use your most valuable recovery resource aside from yourself and your commitment to recovery: other people. The other people who can support your recovery the most are recovery peers – i.e. the people in your AA and NA meetings – your AA or NA sponsor, and/or your therapist, psychiatrist, or counselor. Make sure you have their numbers in your phone, and make sure you have backups. This is also important: if you’re on the verge of relapse, or a slip, you may need to get someone on the phone – and as supportive as they are, your sponsor or therapist/counselor might not be able to answer. In that event, you need backups. You need a backup recovery peer, whose number you can get at an AA or NA meeting, and a backup therapist/counselor, whose number you can get from your primary therapist/counselor. When you need to use the numbers, don’t be shy: if those people weren’t ready to support you, they wouldn’t give you their numbers – so use them.
These four tips outline an approach to holiday triggers that gives you a good chance of managing them successfully. Things are challenging during the coronavirus pandemic, and you should understand that everyone is under an atypical amount of stress this year. You are, your family is, everyone you see out in the world is, too. That’s why you need to plan ahead and expect to experience challenge: this has been a tough year, we’re all a little frayed around the edges, and we may not be our best selves. The solution is to be ready and have plans to implement if you experience a sobriety-threatening trigger.
Walk the Recovery Walk
We say it plainly in this article: the holidays can be a potential minefield of triggers for people in recovery. At the same time, the holidays can be the opposite: a time when you can learn how resilient you are and how strong your recovery is. You get to test your trigger management skills when it matters most – in the real world with real people. These tests are crucial because they’re when you learn what works and what doesn’t.
We’re after two things with the tips we offer. First, we acknowledge the holidays are somewhat of a highwire act for people in recovery. Second, we want you to be brave and walk that wire – but with a safety net. Your trigger management plan is that net, designed to keep you safe if you place a foot wrong or lose your balance. A good plan – and a good net – will save you. Once you regain your footing and rediscover your balance, you can put one foot in front of the other, and make it to the other side of the holiday season with your sobriety intact.