How to Help People with Substance Use Disorders During the Holiday Season

November 12, 2018

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Ramon Solhkhah, M.D. contributes to topics such as Behavioral Health.

The holiday season is meant to be a joyful time when family and friends get together to celebrate, share gratitude and delicious meals and make wonderful memories. They almost always look perfect on television and on social media newsfeeds, but the reality is that the holidays can be extremely stressful.

Between planning, shopping, travel and complicated family dynamics, it’s completely normal for people to lean on various coping mechanisms to make it through the holiday season unscathed. Bottles of wine tend to flow, and people are eager to indulge in the latest holiday-themed cocktails. However, for those who have recovered from addiction, or are actively struggling with a substance use disorder, the holiday season can be especially troubling. The stress is often amplified and the surroundings can be a harsh reminder of the very things that could have driven substance use in the first place – such as loneliness, financial issues or unresolved family conflict.

Ramon Solhkhah, M.D., professor and founding chair of the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Health at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine at Seton Hall University and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Jersey Shore University Medical Center is also board-certified in addiction psychiatry. Dr. Solhkhah provides expert advice on exactly how you can help support someone with a substance use disorder this holiday season.

  • Don’t Build Social Gatherings Around Alcohol – “Be conscious of the environment you’re creating. Having alcohol readily available and/or watching others drink is just going to make the gatherings more difficult for someone who is trying to stay sober,” shares Solhkhah. “Even if someone in recovery never drank alcohol, it could plant a seed and trigger a relapse of their drug of choice later on.”
  • Stay Tuned In To Behaviors “Keep an eye on your friend or family member without overwhelming them or policing them. It’s important that they know they have support without feeling defensive,” Solhkhah adds.
  • Offer to Leave at Any Time Have a conversation ahead of time, acknowledging that parties or gatherings may be challenging – and that them attending, even for a short time, will be meaningful to others and themselves. Let them know that if being at an event is too much to handle or they feel anxious, you will be their partner and leave with them at any time.
  • Be the Designated Driver – “Although it would be ideal to avoid substance use altogether, it’s not always possible,” explains Solhkhah. “So it’s best to be prepared and avoid any additional harm that could come with driving while under the influence.”
  • Plan Healthy Activities It’s never too early to get a jump on a healthy New Year’s resolution, or include these in your busy holiday season schedule. Activities that are good for your mental and physical health, such as yoga classes, skiing or hiking are often the ones that we tend to skip during the holidays. “Having plans on the calendar that help reduce anxiety could be powerful tools to a happy holiday season,” says Solhkhah. “In fact, new research by the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions has determined that exercise may be able to help treat or prevent addiction by altering the brain’s dopamine system.”
  • Remind Them That Help is Always Available – “Don’t avoid people with substance use disorders. Your interaction and outreach, and including them in gatherings may help them avoid feelings of isolation that typically make the situation worse for them,” stresses Solhkhah. “If your loved one is open to it, you can even get involved in the recovery process, so they know they have unconditional support.” A form of therapy called community reinforcement and family training focuses on counseling and training for the family. The therapist teaches the family how to help motivate someone struggling to seek treatment. This therapy also helps the family recognize situations that may lead someone to drink or use drugs. Other family oriented recovery programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are available in communities nationwide.

As with any mental health issue, education and awareness are critically important. In many cases, standing by a loved one or friend with substance use disorders is difficult and challenging any time of year.  The more we talk about the realities of substance use disorders, and understand that these are treatable medical conditions and resources are available, the more we can help those who are bravely fighting this disease each day. If you are close to someone who has an alcohol or drug addiction, reach out your hand during the holidays and remind them that they have support.

To learn more about the behavioral health and psychiatry services provided by Hackensack Meridian Health, visit HackensackMeridianHealth.org/Behavioral.

The material provided through Health Hub is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.