Triggers for Addictive Behavior Multiply Over the Holidays—Here’s How to Cope

negative behaviors

Triggers for Addictive Behavior Multiply Over the Holidays—Here’s How to Cope

By Virgil Roberson, L.P., M. Div., NCPsyA, Executive Director.

If you’re struggling with addiction, the holidays can be a minefield of dangerous triggers of the negative behaviors you’ve been working so hard to avoid.  Whether you have negative or positive associations with the days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and no matter your faith background, the myriad sights and sounds, traditions and expectations—not to mention weeks packed with activities—can arouse powerful emotions.  The increased stress and anxiety can provoke patterns of behavior that have not served you well in the past: too much alcohol consumption, over eating, gambling, excessive shopping, or acting out in whatever form it takes for you—all intended to put you in control while actually robbing you of personal agency.

Can you get through the holidays without a meltdown? Yes, but it helps to be prepared.

The process involves three stages: awareness, acceptance, and action.

First, take some time to acknowledge how difficult this time of year can be. The holidays fill our senses with lights and decorations, baking cookies and scented greenery, music and singing.  All of these can remind us of how the holidays used to be and are no longer.  Losses are often felt more keenly.  No matter when we lost loved ones, how long ago we sold the family home, or when we were laid off from our dream job, we find ourselves taking stock during the end-of-year holidays and feel those losses all over again.

The holidays also come packed with expectations—of ourselves and others.  When those expectations aren’t met, which almost inevitably happens, we often allow resentment to take hold.  And if our expectations rise too high, or we hold them too tightly, the resentment that follows can induce a “fight, flight, or freeze” response, actions we’ve been trying to avoid.  Expectations become the match that lights the fuse of addictive-related behavior.

People struggling with addiction often react poorly to authority figures. A flight attendant simply asking a passenger to raise her seatback might provoke a negative over-reaction.  A parent re-asserting authority over a 20-something son home from college might initiate an escalating confrontation.

It’s important to recognize the triggers that get you into trouble.  They may be feelings of self-pity, which lead to the twisted logic that if Uncle Joe can drink excessively, why can’t I? Or if cousin Mary can go back for a third helping, I can too.  If my sister can have that expensive sweater, I want one as well. Another trigger might be too much of a sense of well-being, followed by the fearful conviction that something bad will inevitably follow.  Or you may fall into a pattern of comparing yourself with others at the company party or within the extended family; coming up short, you fall into despair.

A danger sign might be an increase in “cross addictive” behaviors.  Maybe you’re suddenly smoking again or behaving in inappropriate ways—coming on too strong at the company Christmas party, acting inappropriately with family members, or even becoming promiscuous with casual acquaintances.  Such a loss of judgement and self-control are clues to impending trouble.

Shame—whether recognized or not– is often the emotion underlying all these feelings.  Something missing, something needed long ago and never received, can make you feel bad about yourself.  Bad enough that you’re compelled to act in an addictive way—anything to mask that shame and attempt to regain the control that shame has taken away. But shame can be acknowledged, and it doesn’t have to rule.

So, first learn to recognize your particular warning signs and triggers.  And be aware of the difficulties that the holidays in particular pose for you.

It’s important to know your own boundaries so you don’t collude with the idea that you have to act out on your feelings; learn what you can handle and what you can’t.  You might choose to set the terms for a visiting family member, saying, “You’re welcome to come, I’d love to have you, but I ask that you not drink while you’re in my home because I have trouble handling that; if you prefer not to honor this request, I’m happy to arrange to get together another time.”

It helps to decide ahead of time what limits you’ll set for yourself and how you’ll handle situations that you anticipate.  This is hard work!  It’s difficult to resist peer pressure, which can be intense.  It’s tough to risk criticism when you’re yearning for acceptance.  But it’s healthy to map out in advance where your boundaries lie and what you’ll do if circumstances threaten to spin out of control.  Act with the intention of remaining in charge of your behavior instead of letting others dictate it.

It’s also important to accept your feelings, however uncomfortable they make you.  Acknowledge your fears, doubts, even your anger.  These feelings won’t hurt you, but what you do with them can create situations you can’t undo later.

Then, decide what action to take.  Ask yourself what you want and how you can achieve it.  If you want to keep peace in the family over the holiday dinner table, what can you do to facilitate that?  Can you let go of your previous demands and expectations?  Can you adopt coping mechanisms to help guide you?

If you find yourself in a situation that threatens to overwhelm you, you might reassert control by:

  • Taking a big breath, then another.  Slow down enough to become conscious of your breathing.  That alone will calm you.  Make yourself mindful of your feelings, of your body.
  • Delay reacting badly and help to defuse the situation by going to a place where you can cool down: slip away to your room or go for a walk, where nature can soothe you or the urban bustle can distract you.  Identify your feelings and get out of your own head by becoming aware of what’s going on around you.
  • Seek out an AA or Al-Anon meeting; there’s almost always one being held nearby.  People in Twelve Step Programs, including official “sponsors” from those groups, can offer the experience, strength and hope to get you through a tough moment.  Another option: you might feel more comfortable with either a clergyperson or a therapist, who might be able to connect you to someone else who’s been in a similar situation.  Or you might arrange in advance for a friend to be “on call.”  It needn’t be your best friend, just someone who can act in your own best interest—by picking you up so you don’t need to drive to escape a tenuous situation; or by lending a listening ear.
  • Practice self-care. If you begin to slip into self-pity, ask yourself: what am I wishing I had, and can I give that to myself?  Chances are, what you really want, deep down, will feed you, rather than your addiction.
  • Cultivate gratitude: be aware of and appreciate what you do have instead of resenting what you don’t have.  Viewing your circumstances from an attitude of gratitude is bound to brighten your outlook.

All these suggestions are intended to help you become aware of your feelings, your triggers, and your boundaries; to accept your feelings and the situation as they are; and to act not in reaction but to reassert control.  Just as on the highway, you can escape an annoying tailgater by changing lanes or even pulling over, so too you can escape a triggering situation by practicing self-care to de-escalate, calm down, and regain agency over your behavior.  In that way, you can control the things you can, let go of those you can’t, and show that you have the wisdom to know the difference.

With these tools in hand and the commitment you’ve worked hard to maintain during the rest of the year, you can enjoy the holidays with good mental health, filling your heart and soul with the love and good will that will leave you richly satisfied.