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5 Ways To Stay Sober Over Thanksgiving

Dr. Richard Foster, LICDC-CS

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Richard Foster, LICDC-CS

March 8, 2019

Like many holidays, Thanksgiving can be a source of great meaning and good times, but for some, it can also be a source of stress, triggers for relapse, and temptation. If you’re in recovery or working to build a sober life, these can be very detrimental things to subject yourself to. With mindfulness, honesty, and proper planning, however, you can keep yourself strong and focused during the holidays.

1. Identify Potential Triggers

Sometimes a trigger may be an argument, a situation playing out, in the same way, every year in a way which creates tension, or even a person placing demands on us (e.g. make sure you arrive on time, don’t forget your side dish, etc.). While these people may mean well, the stress, pressure, and heightened expectations may lead you to desire the escape alcohol or drugs once provided.

On the other hand, triggers may be more obvious. Perhaps your family engages in a toast every year before dinner. Or maybe half of your family spends a portion of the day watching football and drinking beer.

In any case, should you know drugs or alcohol will be involved in a specific portion of the day (or the whole day) be honest with yourself: can you handle it? If you have any doubt at all let that guide and inform the course of your day. What follows are some tips to do just this.

2. Practice Self-Awareness And Self-Care To Balance Stress And Triggers

The holidays can be joyful and engaging, but they can also be exhausting and emotionally strenuous. To better understand this, and what you can do to balance these extremes, let’s examine the acronym H.A.L.T.

Being Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired can all put you in a state of mind which makes you more susceptible to temptation and relapse. During the holidays, these triggering states can be even more frequent and intense than normal.

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Here are some tips on how to balance them during Thanksgiving:

Hungry: When you’re hungry, you’re more apt to suffer from mood shifts and other mental and emotional struggles which might push you to use. Don’t save up and wait till Thanksgiving dinner to eat or get so busy with preparations that you forget. Make sure to eat a balanced meal earlier in the day and snack if necessary to avoid crashing.

Hunger doesn’t just apply to food, it can also reference our emotional states. Holidays can usher in confusing thoughts when you’re in recovery. Reach out to a loved one and express any uncertainty or emotional needs you have which can help you feel more balanced and in control.

Angry: Holidays can cause emotions to run high, leading even close family members to snap or get on each other’s nerves. For others, the underlying family dynamic may already be stressed, and feeling forced to put on a happy face or be in close quarters with people you don’t get along with might be upsetting.

If these are things you can’t reasonably anticipate or avoid, strive to moderate your emotions and release tension in a healthy, constructive way. Take a journal with you and write it out, take a walk, confide in someone you feel safe and understood by, or, if things become too intense, leave.

Lonely: Sometimes we isolate ourselves out of fear, shame, or anxiety by not taking part in family events. Does this sound familiar? If so, as uncomfortable as it might feel, try making yourself. It might be difficult at first, but eventually, you might realize you’re laughing or taking part in the conversation and actually enjoying a meaningful evening with loved ones.

If you don’t have close family to spend the holiday with reach out to a sponsor, friend, or pastor for a positive word of affirmation or read on for additional ideas under tip five.

Tired: Holidays can be tiring, both during the planning and preparation stages, and the day of. Make sure you’re getting enough rest leading up to Thanksgiving and strive to get a good sleep the night before.

Should you feel tired that day, take time out for yourself. Even if you can’t carve out enough time for a nap, consider closing your eyes for a bit, breathing deeply, and/or meditating. Taking a few minutes to recenter and rejuvenate yourself can boost your spirits and energy, making things feel far more manageable.

3. Create A Plan

Now that you’ve worked to identify potential triggers, we recommend that you create a plan to both avoid and cope with them should they arise. Having a plan includes practicing saying no and anticipating when you might have to do so.

If you’ve celebrated with these individuals or within this environment before, take a step back and look to your past experiences. Was there certain points throughout the evening which were especially stressful or when alcohol and/or drugs were involved?

First, you should consider if it’s a good idea to even be present within these situations, and secondly, if you choose to, how can you avoid or handle them in a way which doesn’t jeopardize your sobriety?

Prior to the day’s events, it might be a good idea to express to your loved ones that you’re no longer drinking and/or doing drugs and that you need their support. Some individuals in recovery from alcohol like to carry or hold a nonalcoholic drink with them to avoid being pressured to drink, just in case someone isn’t supportive of their recovery.

Informing close family members of triggers can be helpful too; should they spot one in advance of you they can warn you so that you can work to avoid it. These individuals can also keep you accountable should you feel tempted to use.

If a situation becomes too much for you to handle, decide what you’ll do ahead of time and even what you’ll say. Formulate an exit plan and have a healthier alternative planned as a fallback. This could include going to a sober friend’s house or going home and enjoying a favorite hobby, a movie you’ve been looking forward to, or a good book.

Should you consider relapsing, it’s a good idea to be aware of peer support group meeting times and locations, so that you have access to support and accountability when it matters most.

4. Create A Gratitude List

To help you better enjoy Thanksgiving, and the holiday season going forward, consider creating a gratitude list. Gratitude isn’t just a critical component of Thanksgiving, but of recovery too. Having these things written down on a piece of paper can come in handy when you’re feeling stressed out or facing a trigger.

For already sober individuals, meditate on why you’re thankful for sobriety and the positive impact it’s had on your life. Perhaps your family life has gotten more stable, you’ve been more successful within your career, and/or your mental and physical health has improved now that you’re drug-free.

If you’re still striving for sobriety, look around you and consider what elements of your life you’re trying to preserve and enhance by becoming drug-free. Be thankful you have these things around you as opportunities to instill hope, perseverance, and inspiration.

5. Start Your Own Traditions Or Add To Existing Ones

If you feel that your family’s Thanksgiving will be too full of temptations, triggers, or negativity, don’t force yourself to go against your better judgment. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to miss Thanksgiving either.

Assemble your own sober Thanksgiving celebration instead with friends or people from your support group who don’t have a close or supportive family nearby. Another fulfilling option is to volunteer. Most communities have some sort of group such as a senior center, nursing home, or homeless center which could use the help on a holiday night.

If you’ve decided to take part in your family’s event, consider ways you can create a more sober environment. Try making creating a tasty mocktail (a festive nonalcoholic drink). You might be surprised, even individuals who drink enjoy these.

If a certain part of the evening is going to be difficult on you, plan an alternative. A good example is one we mentioned before. If watching a football game surrounded by loved one’s drinking will be too much for you, begin a new tradition: organize a football game outside. The camaraderie will be a welcome distraction and the natural endorphins you’ll get from the workout will help to lift your spirits.

Get Help If You Need It

The holidays can be a difficult time of the year for people that struggle with addiction. If you or someone you love relapses or is in active addiction, contact a treatment specialist today at

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