As we flip the calendar to its final page of the year, untangle those outdoor lights and navigate crowded parking lots, calls to “celebrate the season” seem to come from every direction. We feel pressure to spend, entertain, and conjure the joy and merriment that we see everywhere from store windows to TV specials. But for many, the flurry of buying, wrapping, cooking, and partying can feel more frenzied than festive.
When everyone gets together, memories of holidays past, losses, and family squabbles seem to surface. There is some truth to the old therapist’s joke that “just a few days with family at the holidays can undo years of therapy.”
For people looking to cut back on their drinking, or abstain entirely, the holiday season can be fraught with social pressures and awkward interactions. Those trying to manage a drinking problem may do so silently, afraid of burdening others with limitations. It’s important to remember that many people struggle during the holiday season, in many different ways.
A cocktail might offer a temporary mood boost when Aunt Carol is asking whether you’re going to have kids, or when Grandpa Mike is railing about politics again, but it’s easy to go overboard.
Holiday drinking: The cold truth
- Alcohol may initially have a stimulant effect, but will gradually have a depressing effect.
- Drinking can lead to consequences such as falls, fights, and motor vehicle accidents.
- DUI violations increase an average of 33 percent between Thanksgiving and the New Year.
- Excessive drinking is defined by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as more than 4 drinks for women and more than 5 drinks for men.
- When social drinking becomes excessive drinking, it diminishes judgment, motor skills, and reaction time, and can lead to impaired function and amnesia.
Here are some tips for safely enjoying the holidays with friends and family:
- Find a substance-free activity that helps you relax – even a brisk walk outside.
- Practice deep breathing.
- Plan to get home from holiday celebrations safely – arrange for a designated driver.
- If you drink, do so in moderation: Consume one drink or less per hour, with a safe maximum of two drinks for women and three drinks for men.
- Make every other drink non-alcoholic.
- Eat dinner to help slow the absorption and effects of alcohol.
- If you are in recovery, declare your abstinence – this will help register your commitment and also signal that you may need support.
Remember that if you’re feeling lonely, inadequate, or grief-stricken during the season, know that it’s OK not to be joyful all the time – and know that you aren’t alone.
By being understanding of our friends and family, exploring substance-free activities, and leaving room for self-care and reflection, we can all enjoy a safe and contented holiday season.
Joseph Messina is the Medical Director of DayOne, the substance disorder program for the department of psychiatry at the UVM Medical Center.