6 Relapse Prevention Tips: Staying Sober During the Holidays

The holiday season can be tough to get through when you’re recovering from an alcohol or drug use disorder and want to stay sober. Holiday parties, family reunions, and the financial burden of buying gifts are common triggers that increase the risk for relapse during this celebrated time of year. But as long as you plan ahead and mentally prepare yourself for what to expect, you can survive the holiday season and overcome common holiday relapse triggers without putting yourself at risk.

Have you or a loved one recently overcome alcohol or drug dependence? Here’s your relapse prevention guide to staying sober during the holidays.

How Common is Relapse?

The concept of relapse tends to have a stigma when tied to addiction treatment. But relapse is a common part of addiction recovery, and in no way signifies failure. In fact, the National Institute of Drug Abuse says that relapsing to alcohol and drug abuse is likely, and affects 40 to 60 percent of those who overcome drug use disorders.

Relapse rates for those who suffer drug use disorders are similar to relapse rates for other chronic illnesses including asthma, hypertension, and diabetes. A person who relapses back to drug use simply requires additional treatment, whether it be a new treatment, or existing treatment with modifications. Most drug treatment centers will customize relapse prevention therapies to each individual patient based on their own history with relapse and addiction.

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Who Answers?

When it comes to relapse, it’s important to remember that addiction is defined as a chronic relapsing brain disease, and cannot often be cured quickly, or all at once. For many, overcoming addiction is a lifelong journey that requires a certain mindset and the development of skills aimed at managing triggers and avoiding relapse. Staying sober after overcoming a drug use disorder involves making a series of healthy lifestyle changes that can take years to implement, which is why relapsing is normal and sometimes difficult to avoid.

What Causes Relapse?

Many times, the same triggers that caused you to use drugs and alcohol in the past are the same triggers that commonly lead to relapse. Since addiction is also psychological and affects behavior, it’s not surprising that facing certain triggers can awake old behaviors and tendencies, and drive one’s urge to return to using drugs and alcohol.

Here’s a list of common relapse triggers.

  • Spending time with the same people. Going back to old social circles is one of the most common causes of relapse — especially if these individuals are still using alcohol and drugs.
  • Lack of support. Recovering from addiction can be difficult to do on your own without a strong, solid support team of friends and family.
  • Stress. Common everyday stressors such as paying bills, facing a problem at work, or coping with difficult family members can cause relapse.
  • Cravings. Those who struggled with drug abuse for many years can continue to experience physical cravings even after going through drug detox, but psychological cravings can remain for up to several years.
  • Not knowing your triggers. If you never identified your triggers while recovering from addiction, the same triggers could unknowingly cause a relapse.
  • Emotions. Anger, sadness, and guilt are just some negative emotions that can make you feel like returning to alcohol and drug use.
  • Overconfidence. After having achieved sobriety for several months or years, you may feel overly confident and expose yourself to situations that could lead to relapse.
  • Physical illness. Some people return to using drugs and alcohol to numb pain or to cope with physical illness.
  • Mental health disorders. Those diagnosed with mental health disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD are generally at higher risk for drug and alcohol abuse.
  • Romantic relationships. Some therapists suggest avoiding romantic relationships for at least one year after overcoming addiction, since potential breakups and other problems can lead to relapse.
  • Celebration. Weddings, retirement, and a new promotion at work are examples of positive life events and celebrations that increase the risk for relapse.
  • Reminiscing about past drug use. Glamorizing past experiences involving drugs and alcohol can lead to relapse.
  • Television and movies. Watching commercials that advertise and glamorize alcohol use, or shows and movies in which characters are using drugs can often trigger a relapse.

The best way to avoid relapse is to reenter treatment. Get the help you need today!

Common Holiday Stressors That Can Lead to Relapse

Though the holidays are generally meant to be fun and celebratory, many find the holiday season to be highly stressful — including those who are not recovering from addiction. For instance, the pressure of buying nice gifts for friends and family can be stressful, as can trying to find the time to attend various holiday events. But for those who are trying to stay sober, these types of stressors can often lead to relapse, or exacerbate the desire to relapse.

Here are common holiday stressors that can cause relapse.


In 2015, the average American spent nearly $900 on holiday gifts for friends and family. Managing finances during the holiday season can be difficult, especially when excess funds are being spent on parties and gifts. Those in recovery who struggle with financial problems during the holiday season are at greater risk for relapse.

Holiday Shopping

The pressure of having to find perfect gifts for everyone can be stressful, especially if you’re not sure what to buy. Crowded stores, long lines, and busy parking lots can also be stressful, as can holiday traffic. Though holiday shopping can be fun, this activity can also sometimes be exhausting and difficult for those in recovery.

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Holiday Parties

Alcohol can be found at most holiday parties, including work parties and business events. Holiday parties are often a tough subject for those recovering from alcohol abuse, since attending parties usually involves exposing oneself to alcohol. At the same time, some feel that skipping out on holiday parties can lead to compromised business and personal relationships, as well as feelings of loneliness, guilt, and frustration.


Religious, spiritual, and family holiday traditions can sometimes interfere with recovery when drugs and alcohol are involved. For instance, if drinking eggnog and spiced rum on Christmas Eve is part of your family’s holiday tradition, you may be encouraged or feel the need to relapse so you can enjoy this tradition with your family.


Coping with difficult relatives or reuniting with estranged family members during the holidays can be stressful, and increase the risk for relapse. Some may even feel obligated to spend time with certain family members just because it’s the holidays. Family conflicts and related problems are a common cause of relapse during the holiday season.

Time Constraints

During the holiday season it can be difficult to find time for holiday obligations such as dinners, parties, work functions, and school plays. Some may feel pressured to attend certain holiday events, or feel stressed about lacking time to manage other important responsibilities. Time constraints can often lead to stress, which commonly leads to drug and alcohol relapse.

Relapse Prevention Strategies for the Holidays

If you’re a sober individual recovering from drug or alcohol addiction, understand there are steps you can take to successfully avoid relapsing during the holidays. As long as you know what to expect and can develop a solid plan, you may even be able to attend holiday events and spend time with friends and family without feeling the urge to relapse.

Follow these holiday relapse prevention strategies to stay on track with your sobriety.

1. Know Your Triggers

If you’re not sure what your triggers are, look into receiving cognitive-behavioral therapy or addiction counseling — both of which are therapies that can help you identify and recognize your triggers. Once you know your triggers, devise a list of ways they may relate to the holidays so you can avoid or cope with them and stay sober.

2. Develop a Plan

As the holidays approach, think of backup plans or escape plans you can use when faced with a situation that could lead to relapse, such as a holiday party invitation. Learning how to handle these situations before they come up can help you stay prepared and on track with sobriety. For example, prepare an explanation for times when you’re offered a drink, or think of excuses you can use when you need to leave a party.

3. Understand That Holidays Come and Go

staying sober during the holidays

Regular exercise can help you avoid relapse.

Remind yourself that the holiday season happens every year for just a short time, and that every year isn’t necessarily going to be perfect. This can help you put things into perspective at times of stress, or when you feel pressured to create the perfect holiday experience for friends and family. Plus, remember that lots of people experience stress around the holidays for various reasons, and that you’re not the only one who is coping.

4. Be Prepared to Discuss Your Sobriety

Some friends and family may ask why you’re not drinking, or inquire into how you’re faring with your sobriety. Think about positive ways to answer these questions, or about how to deter people away from the topic. If you’re not comfortable discussing your sobriety, think of excuses you can use as to why you’re not drinking, such as you plan on going for a morning run. Your sobriety is an important part of your recovery, and also your personal business that doesn’t have to be shared with everyone.

5. Contact Your Sponsor

Your sponsor from 12-step support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous will understand your commitment and struggle surrounding staying sober and avoiding relapse during the holiday season. Commit to calling your sponsor before and after parties, and attend support groups regularly throughout the month to avoid relapse.

6. Maintain Healthy Lifestyle Habits

The holidays can be a fun time to indulge in sweets, stay up late at parties, and engage in other activities that could compromise the healthy lifestyle you’ve achieved after overcoming addiction. But stay focused and committed to staying healthy, since poor physical and psychological health increases the risk for relapse. Continue to exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, and eat healthy, nutritious foods — all of which also naturally reduce stress.

If you do happen to relapse during the holidays, try not to feel guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed. Relapse is common, and can be treated so that the next time you’re faced with triggers, you’ll know exactly what to do to stay sober.

What To Do if You Relapse

While between 40 and 60 percent of those recovering from substance use disorders end up relapsing, this percentage falls to 15 percent after five years of sobriety.

The longer you stay sober, the better your chances of avoiding relapse.

Relapse is not to be viewed as a failure, but as another stepping stone or challenge you must overcome before finally overcoming addiction indefinitely. Remind yourself of how far you’ve come and be proud of the fact you’ve realized you’ve made a mistake, and are ready to move forward with becoming sober. Addiction treatment centers are equipped with the resources and therapies you need to avoid future relapses, such as drug detox, counseling, relapse prevention education, and more.

Here are steps you can take if you’ve relapsed during the holidays.

  • Get a drug or alcohol detox. Though you may already have been through drug or alcohol detox, another detox treatment will be necessary to help you overcome dependency, and to flush any remaining traces of drugs and alcohol from your body.
  • Join an addiction treatment program. Addiction treatment centers use therapies like CBT and individual / group counseling to help you identify triggers. Drug treatment centers will also teach you strategies for dealing with those triggers so you can avoid future relapses.
  • Create a new plan. If you had previously devised a plan for staying sober, develop another new plan you can use when faced with potential triggers, such as avoiding all parties at all costs to stay away from drugs and alcohol.
  • Discover new healthy ways to manage stress. Since stress is a common cause of relapse, look for new ways to manage stress that will keep you away from drugs and alcohol, such as taking up a new fitness routine or learning deep relaxation techniques.

If you need help staying sober during the holidays, or could benefit from relapse prevention education, call our 24/7 confidential helpline at 866-351-3840(Who Answers?) . Our experienced drug abuse counselors will help you find drug detox centers that also offer therapies designed to help you stay sober for life.

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