The seasonal holidays and months that follow can be a challenge for people in or seeking recovery. Despite being known as the “most wonderful time of the year” it is not always so. Demands on our time and energy often leaving us feeling tired, disappointed, and depressed. But there are practical tips and strategies that we can use and share with each other to beat the winter blues and enjoy the season.
Between late November and New Year’s and through the dark winter months, many Mainers, including those in recovery from substance use disorder, struggle with anxiety, grief, and depression as a range of stressors collide in our lives.
The stressors include those associated with the holidays such as financial strain, family conflicts, the expectations of others, recent losses, the inability to be with one’s family and friends, and the general “busyness” that historically defines this time of year.
They also include the stressor of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). A form of major depressive disorder, SAD has symptoms of fatigue, depression, hopelessness, and social withdrawal and begins to impact people as Maine’s days become shorter and the hours of available sunlight decrease. In Maine up to 15% of its residents struggle with SAD each year.
In a recent study by the American Psychological Association, over 38% of people surveyed said their stress increased during the holiday season and contributed to physical illness, depression, anxiety, and substance misuse.
Similarly, an estimated 55% of Americans experienced the holiday blues, while 75% of Generation Z respondents (ages 10 to 25 ) and 65% of single adults felt lonelier than their counterparts. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) revealed that approximately 24% of people with a diagnosed mental illness including substance use disorder find that the holidays make their condition “a lot” worse and 40% “somewhat” worse.”
Bottom line: Almost everybody is impacted by the holidays and Maine’s winter blues.
Holiday Blues in the Recovery Community
For people seeking or living in recovery from substance use disorder, the impacts of the holidays and SAD can be even more intense. Not only do we struggle with the “standard” list of stressors, we often face the pressure to drink alcohol at family or employee parties or use other
substances in social situations “to fit in” or “join the fun.” Unresolved conflicts with family members, complex grief, and remorse can leave us feeling lonely and isolated. The feeling of connection that is so vital to recovery can seem impossible to regain.
There is Hope
Despite all the statistics and trends in the past, there is room for hope. This is partly due to the fact that recovering people are among the most resourceful, courageous and compassionate people around. The bonds we form and the communities we create empower us and inspire our growth. And the strategies we share enable us to forge a community network of informal and formal resources to support our well-being. So, despite the swirl of holiday stress and SAD, we know there is hope; we have a toolbox of tips that can guide us through whatever comes our way.
Ten Tips to Survive and Thrive Through the Holidays
1. Breathe. It may sound silly or simple, but when we are stressed or anxious our breathing can become shallower, which can negatively impact our moods. Practice taking 3-4 slow deep breaths.
3. Prioritize the important activities; spend your time, energy and resources on the ones you enjoy or cherish most, and let go of the rest.
4. Set realistic expectations for yourself and others.
5. Gratitude: Seek reasons to be grateful, and write a list of five per day.
6. Stay Present: Don’t compare today with the good old days— stay out of the past and celebrate the present.
7. Give to others: Lift the spirits of others through a gift of your time. Walk dogs at an animal shelter, help deliver meals, donate time to a food pantry, or shovel a neighbor’s walk.
8. Make a budget: Keep track of your holiday spending to reduce depression and anxiety when the bills arrive.
9. Practice self-care: Get plenty of sleep, eat healthy foods, and carve out 30 minutes a day to exercise, in 10-minute bursts if you have to.
10. Create an escape plan: If you go to a party or event, park where you can leave quickly, have a list of phone contacts ready, and bring your own beverages or snacks. Better yet, go with another person in recovery or an ally who can support you.
Formal and/or Professional Supports
Self-help tips can be incredibly effective. But sometimes we need to seek professional support to stay ahead of the blues. Before the holiday season takes off and the days get short, take some time to explore a few until you find one(s) that fits You. If you have a therapist, make the most of your time together; prepare notes on concerns or questions you want to address. If you think you have SAD, or have already been diagnosed, talk with your doctor about light therapy, medication and talk therapy.
Put the Crisis number on the speed dial (888) 568-1112 or 988 (new crisis helpline) so you will have it ready if you or a peer needs it. Consider connecting with a recovery coach or certified peer support specialist, or if you have one, increase the frequency you see them. Attend peer support groups on-line or in-person. Enjoy coffee and connection at any one of Maine’s Recovery Community Centers, attend “alcathons” or other events sponsored by recovery communities around Maine.
Check out the support at the end of your fingertips: download apps that focus on self-care strategies like yoga, exercise, meditation, sound bathing, and safety planning. Finally, ask for help…. it can be the most difficult thing we do, but when we ask a friend to support us, we give them a priceless gift to which none can compare.
The holidays and Maine’s dark winters are difficult for nearly everyone. But for those of us in recovery there is tremendous hope.
We know that self-care is an essential part of our recovery and through intentional actions we can replace unhealthy behaviors with those that cultivate growth, inspire hope, and support our emotional wellbeing. By using a few simple tips, asking for help and spending time with your recovering friends, the holidays can become a time of joyful community connection and personal growth – truly a time of celebration!