Using the AA Slogans to Deal with Holiday Stress

Seasonal applications to familiar standbys

I took my last drink and used my last drug on December 27, 1997. Right smack in the middle of the holidays. As you can imagine, Thanksgiving and Christmas were not so good for either me or my family that year. New Year's was a little better, but not by much. Since then, I have experienced 17 consecutive holiday seasons without using drugs or alcohol. But even with 17 years of practice under my belt, the holidays can still be stressful if I'm not careful.

As I look back on those first months of sobriety in early 1998, I remember going to a lot of meetings. I was miserable. I was full of shame, and I remember feeling disgusted with myself because I couldn't quit drinking on my own. I knew deep down that my only hope was to show up and do what others had done to get sober and stay sober, but I hated it nonetheless. I hated the serenity prayer, I hated the Steps, I hated sharing in meetings, I hated holding hands with the people on either side of me to close the meeting, and most of all I hated the slogans. But somewhere along the way, I surrendered. My attitude and outlook on life in recovery changed completely, and I began to embrace all the things I so fiercely resisted in the beginning--meetings, fellowship, sponsorship, and the truth about my condition. Over time, I even began to embrace those annoying AA slogans. Today, I find that these simple words of wisdom can help me through any situation in life, much less the holidays. Here's how:

Easy Does It

Go easy on yourself during the holidays. Show yourself the compassion you would give your own best friend if you witnessed them being hard on themselves. If you are feeling stressed or noticing negative self-talk, give yourself permission to slow down, be human, and even do something nice for yourself: go to bed early, take a soothing hot bath, or treat yourself to a matinee.

First Things First

Remember to take care of yourself and your recovery first and foremost during the holidays. It's easy to let other people and things take precedence at this time of year, but it is especially important to take care of yourself during times of stress. Make a list of things you can do for self-care during the holidays, and when you feel anxiety, expectation, perfectionism, guilt, or any other stressful emotion coming on, use your list as a reminder to put "First Things First!"

Live and Let Live

"Live and Let Live" is a great reminder that we don't all have to do things in life in the same fashion. The way your mother or other family members like to celebrate the holidays might be very different than the way you want to do them, especially now that you are sober. Part of recovery is learning how to practice good boundaries with others. Don't try to force your approach to the holidays on others, and don't allow them to force their approach to the holidays on you.

Keep It Simple, Stupid

One way to combat holiday stress is to avoid trying to do too much to meet societal or familial expectation. Recognize that it's exhausting and counterproductive to try to "do it all" at this time of year. Keep it simple. Rather than trying to cook, clean, bake, decorate, shop, and show up to every family or social gathering you're invited to on top of all your other commitments, simplify the season by choosing one or two things that you actually enjoy doing to celebrate the holidays.

Take What You Like and Leave the Rest

Now that you are in recovery, you have choices! Recovery and sobriety allow us to slow down and be more mindful about how we spend our time, energy, and money. It's up to you to decide which parts of the holidays you want to embrace and celebrate and which parts you want to release. You might realize that what you love is cooking and listening to holiday music, or maybe you really love to shop for special gifts for your loved ones, but cooking stresses you out. Take some time to plan how you want to spend your holiday energy and money--and leave the rest!

This Too Shall Pass

A lot of people feel depressed during the holidays. If this is the case for you, acknowledge that this is a difficult time of year for you and do what you need to do to take care of yourself. You might go to extra meetings, schedule time with friends who know you well and love you unconditionally, or take extra time for prayer and meditation. Part of recovery is allowing yourself to feel the ups and downs of life and to fully experience all your moods. Feeling sad or down is part of being human. Know that you can handle these feelings without drinking or using over them. Eventually every emotion we feel gives way to another. So whatever you are feeling, know that this too shall pass.

Keep Coming Back

If there is ever a time to go to more meetings than you normally would, it's during times of stress. Sometimes even the most mindful holiday season can bring up feelings of stress, sadness, expectation, or disappointment. Many addicts and alcoholics default to drinking or using to deal with stress or emotion. Going to extra meetings during the months of December and January can make all the difference in getting you through this time. Make a list at the beginning of each week of all the meetings in your area that you might attend if your schedule allows. If you know ahead of time when and where the meetings are, you will be more likely to go.

To Thine Own Self Be True

It can be difficult to put your recovery ahead of others at a time of year when the expectation is to give (and give and give!) Remember that there are many ways to give--giving during the holidays doesn't have to mean giving gifts that you can't really afford or giving energy that you don't really have. It can mean giving to yourself, too. If you feel nervous about being invited to a holiday party, give yourself permission to drive separately and leave early if you start to feel triggered. Be true to yourself by honoring your own needs during the holidays so you don't default to drinking or using.

Nell HurleyNell Hurley is the executive director of national alumni relations for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.
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