For your loved ones in addiction recovery, the holidays can be a very testing time for their recovery.
Activities and festivities that come naturally to us may be mentally straining and difficult for our loved ones in addiction recovery.
Learn how to prepare yourself and your loved ones for the upcoming holidays to support their recovery process.
What Is A Trigger?
A trigger is a stimulus that elicits a reaction, a key element in the craving response that can lead to relapse.
You can have both external triggers (such as witnessing drug use) and internal triggers (such as having symptoms of anxiety or depression).
A trigger is something that usually results in a mental or physical response. Your loved one might mentally respond to a trigger by planning to purchase drugs or alcohol later that day.
A physical response to a trigger might look like purchasing drugs or alcohol.
Common Triggers For Those In Addiction Recovery Over The Holidays
When everyone is standing around the fireplace having a glass of wine, your loved one in recovery may be fighting off unwanted urges and thoughts.
If you want to be an advocate for your loved one recovering from substance abuse, you should first be aware of the triggers they’ll likely come in contact with so you can help them to respond appropriately.
If your loved one completed an inpatient or outpatient drug rehab program, they may have identified a few of their triggers. The best way to learn what your loved one’s triggers are is to ask them.
Below, we’ll discuss 10 of the most common triggers people in recovery face around the holidays.
1. Frustration-Related Triggers
In a study published in 2020 evaluating triggers of addiction, researchers found that frustration plays a vital role in triggers for people in addiction recovery.
They define frustration as the emotional result of what’s expected (what someone needs in recovery) and what’s found.
What a person finds frustrating is subjective. It could include anything from an irritating conversation to a family member breaking a boundary time and time again.
Over the holidays, your loved one may experience one or more of the following frustration-related triggers:
- lack of control
- unwanted conversations about difficult topics
- inability to participate in certain traditions
- decreased social stamina
- emotional issues
2. Stress-Related Triggers
Researchers in the aforementioned study found that frustration, a subjective personal factor, can trigger a negative perception of reality, which is also seen in stress-related disorders.
People who have experienced drug addiction, alcohol abuse, mental illness, trauma, and early child abuse all share similar brain alterations.
- decreased volume of the hippocampus, which is vital for memory
- decreased volume of the anterior cingulate cortex, which affects empathy, impulse control, emotion, and decision-making
- a decreased prefrontal cortex response, another key component of decision-making
All of these factors combined mean that stress-related issues can be a major threat to sobriety for someone in recovery. This is because their brains have been rewired with lower functionality in areas needed to make good decisions and control impulses.
Here are some of the stress-related triggers your loved one might see over the holidays:
- responsibility (such as being in charge of cooking large quantities of food)
- tense relationships
- time management
- unexpected events
3. Anxiety-Related Triggers
Anxiety and substance abuse are closely linked. A recent study shows that it’s likely they even involve the same area of the brain, the bed nucleus of stria terminalis (BNST).
The BNST becomes activated during a type of adaptive anxiety called threat monitoring as well as during drug and alcohol withdrawal and relapse.
This could make anxiety-based triggers particularly problematic for those in recovery.
The following are some anxiety-related triggers your loved one might experience over the holidays:
- uncontrollable worry
- difficulty concentrating>
- muscle tension
- racing thoughts
4. Family-Related Triggers
Not everyone enjoys close relationships with their family members. For some, their family is a strong support network for recovery; but for others, family can be less reliable.
Even for those who love their family and want to be around them, too much family time can be overwhelming.
Here are some of the family-related triggers to be aware of during the holiday season:
- extended time with family members
- seeing old family members
- spending time with family members who do not support their recovery
- spending time with family members who use drugs or alcohol
- discussing triggering topics with family members, such as traumatic events or political views
5. Substance-Related Triggers
One of the most common triggers over holidays such as the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve is witnessing others drinking alcohol, smoking, or doing drugs.
On Christmas, we serve spiked eggnog, New Year’s Eve may be spent clubbing or bar hopping, and Thanksgiving may involve casual drinking or drug use.
For those recovering from addiction, it can be difficult to watch other people use substances. It may induce stress, generate cravings, or even produce nostalgia for their substance use.
These substance-related triggers might look like:
- seeing friends drink or use drugs
- seeing friends or family members associated with past substance use
- going places associated with past alcohol or drug use
- being around drugs or alcohol
6. Trauma-Related Triggers
Some triggers may stem from deep trauma-related issues from childhood, young adulthood, or more recent years.
These triggers may induce a fear response, stress response, or emotional disturbance, each of which can be painful to cope with and lead to substance use.
Some of the trauma-related triggers that can resurface over the holidays include:
- seeing family members or friends related to the abuse or trauma
- discussing difficult topics that remind your loved one of the event
- physical touch
- arguments or disagreements
- remembering the death of a loved one and missing their presence
- mental health issues
It’s best to work through these issues with a therapist in a professional setting using trauma-focused therapy and techniques.
Others may benefit from group therapy, peer support groups, a free rehab program, or another program designed to address deep-seated issues such as trauma and their relation to addiction.
7. Emotional Triggers
Spending a lot of time with family members during the holidays can bring up a lot of emotions, both pleasant and difficult.
You can recognize emotional triggers in your loved one by the often drastic, negative changes in mood they cause.
Some examples of typical emotional triggers during the holidays include:
- unjust treatment (such as feeling like they have to talk about their recovery when they don’t want to)
- challenged beliefs
- being excluded or ignored (such as not being given a glass for toasting because they are in recovery)
- feeling unwanted or unneeded
Feelings of boredom or even happiness can also be emotional triggers if these states of mind caused your loved one to want to use a substance in the past.
Checking in with themselves by getting a few moments alone, focusing on the breath and any sensations they’re feeling, and trying to see the humor in the situation can be helpful ways to manage emotional triggers.
8. Anger-Related Triggers
Heightened stress during the holidays can put people on high alert, just waiting for an anticipated threat. Then, when and if that situation does arise, they might react with anger.
In fact, anger has been shown to serve an evolutionary purpose as an adaptation of the fight-or-flight response, protecting us from danger.
However, anger isn’t always easy to spot, because people show it in a wide variety of ways, such as by yelling or throwing things, crying, or withdrawing.
Some anger triggers your loved one might experience this time of year include:
- blaming and shaming
- misinformation related to their recovery
- others constantly in their personal space
- emotional abuse, including some forms of teasing
9. Financial Triggers
When someone is living with an active addiction, financial problems are usually a given. It can be hard to maintain a steady income, plus there’s the cost of buying drugs or alcohol.
This can make having cash in hand a trigger for some, and cash is a popular gift to give over the holidays. Consider giving a physical gift instead.
Other financial triggers during the holiday season include:
- not being able to afford gifts for loved ones
- making a number of financial decisions at once
- worrying excessively about finances
10. High-Risk Situations
Your loved one might have drunk alcohol or used drugs every time they went to a party. This would make parties a high-risk situation for their recovery.
High-risk situations typically involve two categories of experiences: intrapersonal and interpersonal.
Examples of high-risk intrapersonal experiences include:
- negative emotions
- physical discomfort
- temptation and urge<
- positive emotions, such as feeling good about their recovery and thinking “just this one time” they could use a substance
Examples of high-risk interpersonal experiences include:
- conflict with others
- social pressure
- pressure times
Of the former, negative emotions were the main driver of relapse in a recent survey of 609 people with an SUD. Of the latter, conflict with others was the main cause.
The more these experiences occur, the greater the risk of relapse can be, making the holidays a high-risk situation for many.
Factors That Influence Your Loved One’s Likelihood Of Staying Sober
Researchers have identified a few key components of a person’s recovery that affect their sobriety.
- severity of the addiction: A person who’s been addicted to substances for several years may struggle to break certain habits and resist cravings, especially around the holidays.
- degree of commitment to treatment: Someone who is highly committed to recovery will likely have stricter protocols around triggers, stress, and social engagements.
- level of social support: Researchers have found that those who have little to no social support are much more likely to relapse than someone with strong support.
- ability to afford the cost of treatment: If your loved one can’t pay for treatment, they can’t recover. The ability to pay for treatment is a major indicator of recovery success.
Each of these factors can contribute to what might trigger your loved one, and their likelihood to relapse if a trigger occurs.
Consider these factors when assessing each of the potential triggers your loved one might encounter over the holidays.
If your loved one does not have insurance to cover the cost of addiction treatment, consider looking into other options such as:
- find free local support groups or therapy programs
- free and state-funded rehab centers
- using scholarships and grants to pay for a rehab program
- crowd-funding to help raise money to cover treatment expenses (try GoFundMe or Kickstarter)
How To Talk About Triggers With Your Loved One
The best way to determine your loved one’s triggers is to ask them.
If they’ve gone through counseling or an alcohol or drug abuse treatment program, they’ve likely already learned what those triggers are.
However, these conversations can often seem tricky, as many loved ones of those in recovery worry that bringing up painful topics might spur substance use or cause painful recollections.
While it can be difficult to talk about triggers, and the conversation should be handled with respect and care, it’s important to learn them so you can be a better support system for them.
Here are a few examples of questions you can ask your loved one regarding their triggers:
- Are there any triggers you’re particularly concerned about over the holidays?
- Have you discovered anything that seems to work well if you feel triggered?
- Are there any triggers that you think I could help you with?
- Do you think having a code word would be helpful, which you could say if you’re feeling triggered?
While it can be difficult to talk about triggers, and the conversation should be handled with respect and care, it’s important to learn them so you can be a better support system for them.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when approaching the conversation:
- Keep it focused: Try not to go too deep into hard topics, bringing out unwanted emotions. Instead, learn what the trigger is and move on, reassuring your loved one along the way.
- Talk when they’re ready: Be sure they’re open to a conversation about triggers. If this is a hard subject area for your loved one, they may need to come to you when they’re ready.
- Be understanding: It may be hard for your loved one to discuss or admit some of the topics they’ll cover, so remain open and express your understanding ofthese issues.
Steps To Take To Support Your Recovering Loved One During The Holidays
Now that you and your loved one have discussed some of their most pressing triggers, you’re prepared to face them when they arise.
If you’re not sure where to start, you might consider a few of the tips below.
Set Realistic Goals
For many people in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction, it can be a real challenge to keep up with the same level of social interaction, activities, length of festivities, and other aspects of the holidays they typically participate in.
This is why it’s important that people in addiction recovery set realistic goals for the holiday that both meet their desire to be included and honor their recovery needs.
Here are a few examples of realistic goal-setting for people in recovery over the holidays:
- I will start my day with 10 minutes of prayer, meditation, reading, etc.
- I will attend one recovery group on the day of the holiday.
- I will spend three hours with family and friends, and leave once that time is up to preserve my mental well-being.
- I will ask my sober loved ones to help keep me accountable during the party, family gathering, etc.
- I will refrain from drinking alcohol by bringing my own beverage.
- If anyone around me uses drugs or alcohol, I will make my exit.
- I will take care of my physical health by including at least one fruit and one vegetable in my holiday meal.
- I will talk to a sober friend or recovery mentor one hour before and after the holiday gathering.
Setting generalized, unrealistic goals might include “staying sober” or “being healthier.” While these are good goals, they’re not specific and thus may be hard to accomplish.
By setting more targeted goals with action steps, you can help your loved one to stay sober and improve their physical and mental health over the holidays with specific ways to do that.
Keeping in mind triggers involving family, socializing, substances, and stress, boundaries are essential when planning a successful, sober holiday for your loved one.
The boundaries your loved one in recovery creates should be specified to the triggers they face. Each boundary should come with a consequence in the event that it’s crossed.
For example, if your loved one sets a boundary of no alcohol at the dinner table on Christmas, they should be prepared to leave if someone brings alcohol.
Here are a few examples of helpful boundaries with corresponding consequences for the holidays:
- boundary: No drinking or using drugs when I’m present.
- consequence: If someone breaks this boundary, I will leave. If the boundary is consistently broken, I will no longer attend gatherings.
- boundary: No discussion of past conflicts or trauma.
- consequence: If the topic is brought up, I will leave the conversation. If the boundary is consistently broken, I will no longer have conversations with these people.
- boundary: No discussion of my substance use.
- consequence: If a friend or family member pushes me on the topic of addiction or my recovery when I’m not comfortable discussing it, I will leave the situation.
Remind your loved one that it’s OK if not everyone agrees with these boundaries. Not everyone in the room has to understand the boundary, but they should respect it.
Help them proactively problem-solve a few issues they think might come up over the holidays and create boundaries around those issues.
There are several practices that can help your loved one lower their overall stress while giving them tools to use in the moment of a stressful or triggering experience.
Exercise is great for increasing “feel good” endorphins and improving mood. It can even calm our fight-or-flight response, as we mimic a stressful situation for our body with exercise but then work through it.
Mindfulness practices like breathwork are also great for reducing stress. Many offer tools that can be used in any situation without others knowing.
As your loved one gains healthy tools for managing difficult situations and negative feelings, their confidence will grow, which can also reduce the effects of triggers.
Find A Wingwoman Or Wingman
With all the social activities and get-togethers during the holiday season, there are more opportunities for triggers to arise.
Having help from someone who understands their addiction and the recovery process can reassure your loved one that they are supported and don’t have to go it alone.
This can go a long way in reducing negative emotions and conflicts with others, two big drivers of relapse.
This trusted family member or close friend can show support by doing the following:
- understanding your loved one’s triggers
- steering conversations away from triggers
- checking in to make sure that things are going smoothly
- providing positive feedback (such as through smiles, a gentle touch on the shoulder, or a hug if appropriate)
- offering moments to get away for a bit
Make An Exit Plan
Help your loved one in recovery to create an exit plan if and when a triggering experience happens over the holiday.
If hard topics come up at the table during Thanksgiving dinner or someone brings out a bottle of wine, your loved one may not be prepared to handle these situations just yet.
Once a situation becomes a threat to their sobriety, it’s usually best to leave. Consider a few scenarios with your loved one and determine the right time to leave so they’re prepared for it.
You can also suggest that they go straight to a trusted friend’s home, a recovery meeting, or call a peer mentor after exiting the gathering. This will ensure they’re pursuing healthy alternatives.
What If A Trigger Turns Into A Relapse?
A person with a substance use disorder who never relapses is rare. It can be helpful to see relapse as normal, not as a failure on your loved one’s or any care provider’s part.
Feel grateful if your loved one confides in you about their relapse and express your gratitude to them for telling you. Let them know that you are there for them.
One of the best things you can do during a relapse is to encourage your loved one to continue with their treatment program because although relapse is normal, it’s also serious.
If they have completed their program, help them make an appointment with their care team as soon as possible. If they attend group meetings, help them find one.
Relapse can be an opportunity for your loved one and their therapists and other care providers to reassess needs, refocus treatment, and build a better relapse-prevention plan.
Resources For Those Recovering From Addiction And Their Loved Ones
Both you and your loved one in recovery need additional support during the holidays. It’s important to express emotional needs and find healthy outlets for mental wellness.
The resources below can help you and your loved one to do this.
Resources for loved ones of people in addiction recovery over the holidays:
- Al-Anon Family Groups and Nar-Anon Family Groups: These are 12-step programs for loved ones of those addicted to alcohol and narcotics, available in-person and virtually.
- Families for Addiction Recovery: This group offers tools for supporting your loved one as well as yourself.
- Marine Corps Community Services, “Navigating the Holidays When a Family Member Struggles With Substance Misuse”: Get tips for managing difficult emotions that might arise during the holidays for your loved one.
- Mayo Clinic, Intervention: Help a loved one overcome addiction: Find information on how to handle an intervention if needed.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), “The Truth About Holiday Spirits”: The NIAAA shares the effects of alcohol during the holidays and how to plan ahead for a sober-friendly gathering.
- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “Understanding Mental Health Triggers”: Friends and family members can use this resource to learn more about common mental health triggers and how to help a loved one cope.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Families Supporting a Loved One: SAMHSA’s resources for family members of people with an SUD include videos, factsheets, and booklets.
Resources for people in addiction recovery over the holidays:
- Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, and Narcotics Anonymous: 12-step support groups for those recovering from substance abuse.
- Harvard Medical School, “Navigating the holidays in recovery”: Get tips on making a plan for handling common events this time of year, like the office holiday party.
- Mental Health America (MHA), “How to Navigate Alcohol Addiction Recovery Over the Holidays”: Explore helpful ways to set boundaries, manage self-care, and stay connected to a network of sober peers during the holidays.
- National Harm Reduction Coalition: This organization builds evidence-based strategies for people who use drugs, including harm reduction tools like syringe access.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Coping with Substance Use Disorder during the Holidays” (video): Dr. Nora Volkow shares advice on not allowing drugs and alcohol to jeopardize your health during the holidays.
- SAMHSA, “Recognizing Holiday Triggers of Trauma”: SAMHSA provides helpful insights on managing trauma-related triggers around the holidays.
- SAMHSA, Virtual Recovery Resources: Find resources to support your recovery virtually.
- SMART Recovery Toolbox: Find worksheets and resources to help you manage your recovery and stay on top of relapse triggers.
- Smokefree.gov, Know Your Triggers: Learn common patterns that may trigger a craving to smoke.
- StatPearls’ Addiction Relapse Prevention ebook: This free resource offers details about types of relapses, stages of recovery, and more.
Free Rehab Centers aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- Frontiers in Neuroscience — Prefrontal Contribution to Decision-Making under Free-Choice Conditions
- International Journal of High Risk Behaviors & Addiction — High Risk Situations Predicting Relapse in Self-Referred Addicts to Bushehr Province Substance Abuse Treatment Centers
- The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences — Anterior Cingulate Cortex: Unique Role in Cognition and Emotion
- Neuropsychopharmacology — The Human BNST: Functional Role in Anxiety and Addiction
- Science Advances — Advances in understanding addiction treatment and recovery
- U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information — What Is the “Trigger” of Addiction?