A variety of factors can make the fall and winter months a more difficult time to stay sober. Not only are these months colder and less sunny in many places, but they also contain a potential minefield of triggering events for the newly sober.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Even in California, where the weather tends to be warmer and sunnier than in other parts of the country, it is possible to experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is also sometimes called “Seasonal Depression” or “The Winter Blues,” although SAD can also occur in the summer season.
SAD doesn’t have a specific known cause but may be a biological response to decreased sunlight. SAD would typically be diagnosed only when someone suffers major depression during just one part of the year and then gets better once the season passes. Symptoms of winter SAD include:
- Social withdrawal
- Low energy
- Overeating – especially carbs
- Weight gain
Symptoms of summer SAD include:
- Violent actions
- Lack of appetite
- Weight loss
Because SAD increases unpleasant emotional states, it may be tempting for people in recovery to turn to substances for comfort. Therefore, if a person in recovery has a history of SAD, it is important that they discuss this with their sponsor, therapist, medication manager, and other supports so that a plan can be developed to get through this difficult time of the year.
Winter months can be difficult for those in recovery even if they don’t suffer from SAD. The winter season is filled with holidays that draw together family, colleagues, and friends for celebrations. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve celebrations, for example, can often be reminders of times spent partying and using and may also be times when tempting substances are more accessible to a person in recovery.
When these events are compounded by the stresses of traveling, managing finances to cover holiday spending, feelings of isolation, and possibly cabin fever, it is sometimes a struggle to stay in a recovery mindset.
When a challenging time is on the horizon, a person in recovery would be wise to plan ahead and have a strategy for how they will keep themselves on track.
- If your holiday traditions are triggers for you, change them. Come up with new traditions that don’t revolve around drinking or drug use. If the people you celebrated with aren’t willing to forgo alcohol, consider spending time with someone else.
- Know ahead of time how you will turn down alcohol or drugs. You can bring your own drink, or you can be prepared with an excuse for not drinking. If the guests at the event are drinking from cups, clearly mark yours so you don’t accidentally drink from someone else’s cup.
- Continue attending 12-Step meetings. The time when you feel least like going to a meeting is the time you need it most. You may need the extra support to stay in recovery during the holidays, especially if you suffer from SAD or if you have difficult family relationships.
- Remember HALT. When you start to feel Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired, take extra care of yourself.
Holidays can easily derail routines. When your routine gets thrown off, it’s much easier to forego the care you normally give to your recovery plan. Do your best during these times to keep your routine in place. Keep exercising. Get outside when possible to walk, even for a few minutes. If outdoors isn’t an option, consider visiting a gym, indoor track, or even walking briskly in a shopping mall or store. Keep eating well. Pack healthy snacks when traveling, and try to resist the urge to load up on carbs and sweets.
While it can be wonderful to spend time with friends and family, make sure to schedule time to read, journal, watch a movie, meditate, attend a religious service, or spend the afternoon doing something else that will recharge your batteries.
At Valley Recovery Center in California, we encourage each of our guests to develop a recovery plan that works with their unique lifestyle, values, and goals. We recognize that each day of recovery is different from the day before and may require new tools and strategies.