Recovery and the holidays

I recently wrote an article about safe drinking and making safe decisions during the holiday season. After submitting that article, I thought it might be helpful to provide some information for those working a recovery program or for family and friends of those in recovery. As I previously mentioned, the holiday season can be very stressful for everyone. I have learned through years of working with individuals actively pursuing recovery the holidays are even more stressful and in fact may place individuals at risk for a lapse or relapse.

Whether a person has a few months or 20 years in recovery, it is imperative individuals are mindful of their emotional state, environment (people, places, things), and triggers. Often people become complacent and unmindful that lapses can occur. Take some time and be aware of what your specific lapse or relapse warning signs are. Relapse is a process, not an event. Four common areas to pay attention to are changes in your thinking/cognition, attitude, feelings, and behaviors. Have you noticed an increase in symptoms of depression or anxiety? Did you stop attending that noon meeting? Has your attitude changed? What seems like small changes may in fact be warning signs a lapse or relapse is in the horizon. Ask others if they have noticed a change. Make sure you are engaging in a daily inventory to help you stay mindful of where you are in your recovery.

Developing a coping plan will help you when difficult situations arise. Some of the individuals I work with have found that the most helpful coping plan is the one that is written on paper, specifically a 3 x 5 index card. In times of vulnerability and emotional intensity, it is hard to think clearly and having something concrete you can read with specific strategies helps ground you in the moment and avoid engaging in impulsive behaviors.

A solid coping plan consists of things like having at least three people and their phone numbers you can call to talk to, this may include your sponsor and other trusted individuals. Identify at least three healthy activities you can engage in to distract yourself temporarily. Have at least three positive and motivating statements such as “I can get through this.” “This feeling and thought will pass.” and “My goal is to remain in recovery.” Finally, have at least one effective relaxation strategy you are familiar with such as diaphragmatic breathing or progressive muscle relaxation to engage in.

Plan ahead and find out if alcohol is going to be present at the function. Be assertive with friends and family and request alcohol not be present. If you attend the function bring someone else who has a solid recovery with you for support. Consider where you are in your recovery and know you always have the option to not attend the function. If you are feeling unsafe refer to your coping plan and attend a 12 step meeting if possible.

Remember your recovery and the hard work you have put into it is far more important than putting yourself in an unsafe high risk environment. Knowing what your recovery needs are and honoring those needs promotes and fosters self-care, not selfishness.

Michael Philhower, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker who provides therapy and Intensive Outpatient Services at Family Services. Become part of the 418 Club and help Family Services reach 418 “likes” on Facebook in time for its 125th anniversary on April 18, 2013. Just like its page at and invite your friends and family to do the same.