How to Survive the Holidays from a Mental Health and Addiction Perspective

It’s hard to avoid the barrage of sights and sounds that signal the coming holidays, and you may find your stress levels rising with each Christmas song you hear or menorah you see on display. 

Holidays can be minefields for those who struggle with anxiety, depression, grief, trauma, or substance use disorders, but there are ways to navigate the season with your mental health and/or your sobriety intact. 

One of the first things you can do to set yourself up for success is to put a holiday plan in place beforehand, which is where psychiatrist Dr. Matthew Goldenberg can help. From his practice in Santa Monica, California, Dr. Goldenberg can work with you to outline holiday survival tips that best suit your unique circumstances. 

Here are a few examples of ideas that you can use to begin to create a holiday plan for yourself: 

Create a comfortable schedule and plan (ahead of time) 

As family and friends bombard you with events, gatherings, or services, take a deep breath and sort through them all to figure out which ones you should and want to attend and which ones you might prefer to miss.

For example, the annual holiday office party during which the drinks flow freely might not be good for those who are in early recovery and who are at risk of relapse.

If you are struggling with grief and isolation, make a plan to keep busy, engaged and connected to friends and family so you do not find yourself alone and without support during a time that can be particularly difficult to navigate. 

By creating a plan, you can head into the holidays with support and less stress and hopefully feeling more comfortable with having a schedule that puts your needs first.

Relax and breathe

Once you have a potential schedule and plan in place, begin to work on ways you can relax, recover and breathe easier. If you suffer from anxiety, Dr. Goldenberg works with you to find ways to reduce your stress and anxiety, such as reading, listening to music, meditating, or taking a long walk.

Dr. Goldenberg can also recommend a therapist or coach that can help you with coping tools and strategies in real time that will help you get through the event, such as quick deep breathing exercises, mindfulness activities, and relapse prevention strategies.

Know you can bow out

Another important point to bear in mind before you head into the holidays is that you’re not a prisoner — you can bail out any time you feel overwhelmed or threatened. For those in early recovery or who are otherwise trying to stay sober, for example, when the partygoers start getting into their third or fourth round of drinks, it might be time to gracefully bow out.

One strategy is “to play the tape through”. This means, think about where the night will likely go if you continue down your usual path. If you are struggling with sobriety, after that first drink that seems so appealing, where does the second, then third, then 10th drink lead you? Where will you be the next morning? What havoc will it likely play in your life? By focusing on the conclusion, and playing the tape through, and not on the fantasy or draw of that first drink, it might help you to make a better and more rational choice.  

If you suffer from anxiety or depression, it’s important to listen to your thoughts and feelings and to recognize when things have crossed a line into territory that makes you feel uncomfortable, anxious, or scared.

You can similarly play the tape through as to how the evening will go for you. Is there a time or place that would be ideal for you to leave early or a situation that you have identified that would trigger your anxiety, trauma or depression and cause you to leave immediately? Planning ahead can help you to both mentally prepare for what is to come and also to develop a plan that is best suited for your needs. 

Set boundaries

Family has a way of pushing sensitive buttons and causing regression into previous and more primitive attachment and communication styles. Dr. Goldenberg can discuss ways in which you can better maintain your boundaries. 

If, for example, someone starts questioning you about your mental health or your substance use or sobriety and you feel uncomfortable, he can discuss approaches to handle these difficult conversations and interactions. 

Having alternatives during the holidays like group therapy, mutual help groups, therapy and coaching can all be very helpful so you don’t have to choose between enforcing boundaries and being alone. Dr. Goldenberg works with his patients to provide individualized referrals to all levels of care and types of support. 

Mind your health

It’s always important to look after your health but especially during the holidays. Even the basics of getting enough sleep, eating well, and getting some exercise can have a profound positive impact on your mental health, resiliency and overall wellness. 

Getting outside can be restorative and help to get your sleep and wake cycle on track. A great activity that combines multiple positive behaviors could be as simple as taking a walk in nature to reduce stress and take care of yourself.

Set up support

Aside from working with a psychiatrist and addiction specialist like Dr. Goldenberg, it is important to make sure that you have a good support system as you go into the holidays. It’s no coincidence that support groups and mutual help meetings (i.e. AA, NA etc.) are often standing room only during the holidays, as people find solace in spending time with others who are in the same situation and are seeking the support of others. Mental illness and addiction are often very isolative and so recovery from both is often found by being visible, accountable and “staying close to the herd”. 

Even if there are no support groups that suit your needs, have a close friend or family member who understands your situation on speed dial. It is really hard to pick up the phone for the first time when you are in the midst of a crisis. It has been described by some as trying to lift a ton of bricks. Get into the habit of calling to check in, during the good times, so that when you really need to make a difficult call, the phone does not feel so heavy.  

There are many other great coping techniques that can serve you well this holiday season, and Dr. Goldenberg works with his patients to figure out the best combination for their goals and needs.

With a little planning, you can navigate the holidays without putting your mental health or sobriety in jeopardy — and enjoy the festivities in the process. 

To get started, contact Dr. Goldenberg by calling our office or booking an appointment online today. Dr. Goldenberg is also licensed to provide patients general psychiatry and addiction treatment throughout the states of both California and Alaska. 

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