The holiday season can be a minefield of stressors and triggers that can threaten your sobriety. Whether you’ve been in recovery for some time or you’re newly sober, you’ll face significant challenges during the holiday season. Protecting your recovery progress means realistically evaluating the risks of holiday functions and being selective in choosing the ones you’ll attend.

The Risks of Holiday Gatherings

Attending family gatherings, office parties and special events that take place around the holidays can make you feel odd man out as a sober attendee among revelers. The holiday season is a time of socializing, work parties, decadent food, enthusiastic celebration and, for many, drinking.

Your sobriety guides how you interact with others in these scenarios. If your thoughts are allowed to progress unchecked, it could lead to reminiscing on past days of substance abuse. Keep in mind that the “good old days” aren’t a time you can—or even actually want to—go back to. Remind yourself that you went into recovery because your addiction was taking control of your life.

Choosing Holiday Functions You’ll Attend

You can have fun at holiday gatherings while still minimizing your exposure to stressors and triggers. Here are some guidelines:

  1. Attend sober community events. These are holiday functions where there are no expectations of celebrating by drinking alcohol or doing drugs. You’ll be with friends who understand the importance of maintaining sobriety during holiday celebrations.
  2. Avoid holiday functions where alcohol is a main focus. This means declining invitations to events that are held in a pub or bar.
  3. Choose to attend gatherings with family members who won’t stress you out. If there will be people present with whom you have a strained relationship, consider skipping. It’s okay to say no.
  4. If a particular holiday ritual is too painful or risky to participate in this year, accept that your limits exist and forgive yourself for not going.1
  5. Approach mandatory events with an “arrive early, leave early” tactic. Since drinking and partying tend to accelerate as the event goes on, arriving and leaving early is a great way to make an appearance where required while reducing the risk of temptations. Show up early, greet all the key people—staff, coworkers, bosses—and once the room has filled, you can duck out early.
  6. Addiction doesn’t take ever take a break, so you can’t throw caution to the wind just because it’s holiday season. This is not to say that you need to isolate yourself. Keep the lines of communication open with family, friends and your support system.2

How to Say No to Protect Your Recovery

When you have to say no to a holiday function, first thank the person who invited you by saying that you greatly appreciate the invitation. Then, decline the invite gracefully with a simple phrase: “I’m sorry, but I already have plans.” Your plans could be a simple day to yourself, but it involves plans nonetheless, so it’s not a lie. If your host is someone you do want to see, ask if you could meet for lunch after the holidays.

If the holiday season becomes too difficult for you to handle, reach out for help. Contact your counselor or support group and explain what you’re going through. Pick up the phone and call your sponsor or meet a sober friend for a good talk. Remember that ultimately it’s you who controls whether you will relapse during the holidays, so take responsibility when things get rough and seek help.