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Navigating Family Triggers Through the Holidays – Tips for Relapse Prevention

Each year, the holiday season brings family together for celebration.  However, holidays can be a stressful time, whereas more time spent with family can trigger feelings that may be uncomfortable. Those without close family may feel increased depression, isolation and loneliness. Family stress can bring past addictive behaviors to the surface and normal issues can feel amplified during this time. 

In active addiction, addicts used to find comfort from stress through substances. When the addict enters recovery, a replacement for managing emotions must be the primary focus, especially around the holiday season.  Whether you are close to family, or estranged from family, it’s critical to understand how to navigate family triggers through the holidays to remain clean and sober. 

If those in recovery have not processed past family issues (with the family or a therapist), the potential for relapse rises.  Family home situations can trigger underlying issues at the root of one’s addiction. Family history, unhealthy family dynamics or being in the family home can trigger relapse cravings which can put the recovering addict in danger of relapse. Cravings that are triggered may be even more powerful than before, even if the recovering addict has some time of being abstinent. 

Here are some ways you can prevent relapse and navigate family triggers through the holiday season:

Know your relapse triggers. It is important that you know and understand your own triggers. Just because you know your triggers, does not mean you’ll always handle them well. Awareness is always the first step in relapse prevention, especially during the holidays. A trigger doesn’t always have to stem from outside of yourself.  If you are not properly taking care of yourself (physical and emotional health), you may be susceptible to an heightened emotional state, which can be dangerous for the recovering addict. When emotions are high, intelligence can be low. It is proven that making good decisions when in an elevated emotional state is difficult. Pay attention to your overall well being before seeing family. We recently wrote an entire article on ways to take care of yourself in recovery. You can find the full article on Self Care in Recovery here. 

Everyone has different family dynamics that play into one’s ability to recover from addiction. It is helpful to understand that unrealistic expectations from the family unit may be triggering. The recovering addict may expect the family to welcome and embrace their new life, and the family may not be ready for this.  Just because you are sober, that doesn’t mean the family is on board with the new changes you have made. Unreasonable expectations of the family’s response to the recovering addict can set the addict up for a relapse if there is not awareness of feelings around the family and the role they play in the recovery process. 

Individual family members may know how to push the addict’s emotional hot buttons. A hot button could be pushed by a comment or action which invokes strong negative emotion such as anger, sadness or disappointment. Negative emotion can be managed preemptively by becoming aware of the hot buttons that might be pushed during interaction with family. 

Estrangement from the family may increase feelings of holiday sentimentality. Sentimentality is defined as excessive tenderness, sadness or nostalgia. Sentimental feelings are not necessarily negative, unless the expectations around them not are rooted in reality. 

The holiday season can bring the recovering addict to the brink of relapse if emotions and expectations around the family are not properly managed by understanding individual relapse triggers. Realizing relapse triggers can mitigate any potential addiction relapse. Be aware of your own triggers so that navigating through them is a success. 

Seek support outside of the family.  Support can come in many forms, and doesn’t always come from the family. In fact, there can be a huge emotional charge that is connected to family issues, which is why it’s healthy to have a support system in place that does not include the immediate family.  Before seeing family, it’s important to seek support from a licensed therapist, group recovery program (like the one we have at Collective Recovery) or other sober individuals.  Let your support system know your feelings about your family, so that they can support you during the holidays (and other times of year).  

Before entering a family situation that might cause relapse, ask a member of your support system to be available on the phone or in person for support. It’s also completely normal to decide to spend the holidays with your support system, instead of your family. Give yourself permission to ask for support and allow your support system to be available to help you. 

Have an exit strategy before a gathering. Family  gatherings can bring an opportunity to reconnect with loved ones you do not regularly see. It’s common for people to want to catch up with you, including asking what you have been doing this year. If this year included dedicated recovery treatment, it can make for an awkward conversation. It’s perfectly appropriate to not engage in these conversations, or exit the conversation by changing the subject and keeping things light. If you feel uncomfortable at a gathering, it’s completely acceptable for you to leave. Bring your own vehicle if you can, so that you are not stuck in a situation that might trigger a relapse. It’s also helpful to bring sober buddies and leave a gathering early if you are feeling distressed in any way. You get to decide how much is too much family time for you. 

Practice compassion and forgiveness. Know that the changes you are making in recovery will affect the family dynamic and this can be unsettling at first for other members of the family. Addiction is a family disease, which means it may take some time for the family to adjust to the addict being in recovery, and in the beginning this may trigger unpleasant reactions from family members. 

To cultivate compassion for your family, it’s helpful to understand that many families operate in generational dysfunction. Dysfunctional family behaviors are passed down from one generation to the next. We may have hurt feelings tied to our family, and our family may also be hurt by our past actions. Family dysfunction is often at the core of every addict’s issues. 

Realize that everyone in the family is doing their best, just like you are doing your best to stay sober. Our ability to practice compassion and forgiveness can help us manage any potential negative emotions that might arise when seeing family around the holidays. Practicing compassion and forgiveness is of high importance, especially in preventing relapse. 

Practicing compassion for family, starts with having compassion for ourselves. You can show yourself compassion by praising yourself for even the smallest of accomplishments. Acknowledging the hard work you are performing in recovery is a start to self compassion. Focus on what you are doing right by staying sober, and be patient with yourself and your progress. Forgiving yourself for past mistakes, will open the door towards forgiveness of others. With forgiveness, we make peace with ourselves for our past and we can also forgive others who might have hurt us. 

We hope this article helped you! If you, or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, please contact us today for your free benefits review. You can click here, or call us at 1-866-TAH-HOPE.