Resources to Effectively Cope with Triggers During the Holidays

Couple enjoying the holidays

Contributor: Libby Lyons, MSW, LCSW, CEDS, writer for Addiction Hope.

Holidays can bring heightened stressors and triggers that require further coping skills for someone struggling with a current or past addiction. It is first important to know what and how addiction works. Addiction is defined as a “chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”

Addiction is considered a brain disease because it changes the brain makeup, encoding processes, as well as chemical responses during and after drug use as well as after abstinence.

How Drug Abuse Impacts the Body

Most drugs of abuse directly (or indirectly) target the brain’s reward system by flooding the brain with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter present in regions of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, motivation, and feelings of pleasure. When dopamine is activated at normal levels, this system rewards our natural reward behaviors (eating, sex, running, meditation).

Couple enjoying the holidaysOverstimulating the system with drugs, however, produces euphoric effects, which strongly reinforces the behavior of drug use and teaches the user to repeat it. Some drugs can release 2 to 10 times the amount of dopamine that natural rewards do, and last much longer and have a much more powerful affect.

With this in mind, long-term drug abuse can trigger modifications in non-conscious memory systems. Conditioning is one example of this type of learning, in which cues, or triggers, in a person’s daily routine or environment become associated with the drug experience, and can trigger uncontrollable cravings whenever the person is exposed to these triggers, even if the drug itself is not available. This learned effect is powerful and can affect a person even after long periods of abstinence.

Triggers Influenced by the Holidays

Holidays can bring forth many triggers for addicts, whether current users or in the process of recovery. Triggers generally fall into three categories: emotional, environmental or exposure. They’re often based on previous patterns or memories. Some common triggers include:

  • Negative emotions such as stress, anger, fear, frustration, guilt, anxiety, depression, and loneliness
  • Friends who the individual used drugs with, or locations or events that remind them of using
  • Exposure to drugs
  • Sensory reminders, such as visual, smell, touch, or hearing objects/symbols of drug use (such as seeing a commercial on TV for alcohol, or seeing a syringe, hearing others talk of drug use).
  • Social pressures to use
  • Positive emotional states such as the feeling of wanting to have fun and/or wanting to feel better, or connect with friends.

Involving Family and Friends in Addiction recovery

Many times these triggers revolve around family and friends during the holiday season. Family and friends can be triggers due to old behavioral or family patterns that originate from adolescence, where we know most drug use and abuse begins. Being in the family home, or around enablers or criticizers during the holiday can be extremely difficult for those wanting to abstain. There are many ways to address triggers during this season.

One way is to know potential triggers ahead of time. Knowing what family members or friends cause increased stress or anxiety can help an individual prepare effectively. Secondly, be prepared. Having a ‘go-to” statement for these individuals that can be rehearsed through role play prior to the event can reduce the stress of having to think of a response or statement.

Thirdly, have a support system in place.  Engage healthy family members or friends who supports the recovery process and accompany the individual to the event. Many individuals plan to meet ahead of time to talk out your triggers and plan of action with their support systems. Lastly, meeting with a local support group and/or therapist for further support and relapse prevention planning can help individuals gain further coping strategies.

Setting Up a Coping Skills Plan

To be able to manage emotions during the holiday season, it is good to have a coping skills plan set up with your therapist and/or sponsor. A coping skills plan can help have a set of tools to use in times of heightened stress and pressure, and reduce the effects of the fight or flight system. Deep breathing can be extremely helpful, where the person breathes in through the nose for 4 counts, and out through the mouth for 4 counts. You can continue this breathing as many times as you need too, or timed (30 seconds, 1 minute, etc.).

candle-1750640_1280Use of coping statements can also be valuable especially if the person is spending the holidays in a place where prior substance use has occurred. The use of a physical grounding tool may also be helpful to some individuals when managing triggers.

Tapping toes or fingers against one’s own body, or an object, or encouraging text messages, or pictures of pets, loved ones, etc., can help keep the person connected to the moment and reduce anxious thinking. Individuals can also be their own advocate and walk out of a situation they feel uncomfortable.

In conclusion, addiction can alter our brains reward system and triggers can activate this system, especially around times of stress with the holidays. Utilizing coping skills, grounding techniques, and a support system can help individuals stay in the recover process.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What coping skills do you use that you have found helpful to manage holiday stress?

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS) who works with individuals and families in the area of eating disorders. Mrs. Lyons works in the metropolitan St. Louis area and has been practicing in the field for 11 years. Libby is also trained in Family Based Therapy (FBT) to work with children-young adults to treat eating disorders. Mrs. Lyons has prior experience working with the United States Air Force, Saint Louis University, Operating Officer of a Private Practice, and currently works with both Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute within their Eating Disorders Program and Fontbonne University.


[1]: Retrieved from Relapse Prevention: Know the Signs. 2016
[2]: Retrieved from Addiction around the Holidays, ready or not it’s good to be prepared. 2016
[3]: Retrieved from Addiction Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments 2016

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on October 31, 2016
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About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.