Harm Reduction During the Holidays

The holidays can be a gift and a curse. On one hand, the season is a time of celebration with delicious foods, time with family and loved ones, and an opportunity to have fun and relax. On the other hand, families can be triggering, making us want to reach for unhelpful distractions that could end up harming us — excessive eating and drinking, taking drugs, seeking out unhealthy relationships, and zoning out on Facebook for five hours a day. By the end of the holiday season, we could end up having drunk and eaten way more than we intended, and in need of a vacation to get over it.

The holiday season is a period where we’re positively encouraged to over-indulge: lush platters of delicious foods, candy on every coffee table and office table, and parties laden with wine and beer. It’s hard not to drink or eat more than usual. I’m not here to tell you that you need to stop drinking — only you can decide if that’s the right path for you. I am, however, here to suggest that adopting some principles of harm reduction over the holidays might ease the burden. By applying a mindset of observation and curiosity, instead of judgment and shaming, you might find yourself enjoying the season a whole lot more.

Even if you haven’t reached a clinical definition of severe alcohol use disorder, you could still be in the grey area of mild to moderate alcohol use disorder. For example, your drinking is problematic, especially in emotionally charged situations like the holidays, but you’re not skipping work or falling down drunk every day. This can be a tricky area to navigate — while you have some awareness of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, you can gloss over it because it isn’t that bad.

Here are some approaches to common situations you might face over the holidays.

  1. Limit the party damage

If you notice that you’ve been out for three nights in a row or that you overdid it last night, why not try some healthier options?

  • Politely decline the party invitation, and instead have a night of alcohol-free self-care. Try a hot candlelit bath, hot chocolate, an easy dinner, and an early night with a new book you’ve been meaning to read.
  • If you have to go to the party, consider driving. Go for just an hour to say your hellos and then leave.
  • If you do drink, try to have a soft drink or glass of water in between each alcoholic beverage, and set yourself a three-drink limit. You’ll be thankful the next day. A standard drink in the U.S. is equal to 14 grams, or 6 ounces, of pure alcohol. That equates to:
    • 12 ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol content)
    • 8 ounces of malt liquor (7 percent alcohol content)
    • 5 ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol content)
    • 1.5 ounces, or a shot of distilled spirits of liquor (e.g. gin, rum, vodka, whiskey).
  • Make sure you’re the only one who gets your drinks at the bar, just in case your friends keep buying alcoholic drinks.
  • If you choose not to drink, have a list of reasons prepared if people ask you. Here are a few options:
    • I’m choosing a night off alcohol
    • I am not feeling well
    • I have an upset stomach
    • I am on antibiotics
    • I am doing a cleanse
    • It’s none of your business
    • I don’t want to talk about it
  1. Pay attention.
    • Keep a diary of your drinking habits.
    • At the end of the week, look to see if your drinking is within recommended limits: one drink per day for women and two for men. For more information, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines.
    • Note how you respond to challenging situations and how that impacts your drinking habits.
  1. Just say no.

It is absolutely okay to change your mind or decline a party invitation. Even if you had planned to have a night out with friends, it is still okay to say no. This is especially important when you are tired, in a bad mood, or hungry, because we are more likely to make impulsive decisions. It is from that place that we usually drink to excess, making us feel regretful — not to mention hung over! — the next day.

  1. Have accountability.

Choose a therapist, a coach, a friend, or a loved one to stay accountable to. Check in with them about how many parties you plan to go to each week and set yourself some healthy limits. Why not speak to them before the party, or ask them to text you while you’re there, to make sure you stay on track? Better yet, ask a sober person if they’d like to go with you to the party — you’re less likely to overindulge if your companion isn’t drinking at all.

  1. Have an escape plan during family events.

Family events can be particularly emotionally charged, especially when someone brings up a contentious topic, such as your weight or your relationships. It is helpful to have an escape plan:

  • Tell your family you can only stop by for an hour and then you have something else to attend.
  • Know that it is absolutely okay to say that you don’t want to talk about a certain topic.
  • You can leave if you feel yourself getting riled up or exhausted.
  • Have a friend on standby to text or call if you need a timeout.
  • Remind yourself that it can be challenging to be around family, and show yourself kindness and compassion.
  1. Make self-care a priority.

During a season of excess and a packed calendar, it can be hard to take time out for yourself. But that may be the very thing that enables you to cope with the holidays without reaching for unhealthy habits.

  • Block out time to exercise several times each week.
  • Ensure that you eat at least one healthful meal per day.
  • Drink lots of water.
  • Try to attend a restorative yoga class.
  • Book at least one night off where you turn off your phone, or silence it, and devote the entire evening to unwinding and relaxation.
  • Look for activities that don’t involve alcohol. Why not take yourself to the movies one night, or attend the theater? Try that new craft class you’ve been thinking of.
  • Book extra therapy sessions to process your feelings and any challenging situations that may arise over the holiday season.
  • Plan not to stay over at relatives’ homes. Instead, retreat to the comfort of your own home.

Having a plan and showing up for yourself during the holiday season will make all the difference. Even if you don’t think you have a problem with alcohol, observing your habits with curiosity may give you a better insight into your behavior.

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