When merry turns scary: Coping with alcohol abuse during the holidays

By Staci-Jill BurnleyDecember 15, 2022

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

The season of good cheer and holiday spirit is often looked upon with great anticipation. It’s a time when people gather and celebrate with friends, family and co-workers to eat, drink and be merry. But being merry can be really scary if you’re struggling with alcohol abuse during the holidays.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, excessive alcohol use includes binge drinking and heavy drinking. What does that mean, exactly? For women, binge drinking is four or more drinks consumed on one occasion. For men, binge drinking is five or more drinks consumed on one occasion ("one occasion" equals a 2-3 hour period). Heavy drinking for women is eight drinks or more per week, and 15 drinks or more per week for men.

While the holidays are meant to be a time for togetherness and gathering with those you love, it can also be a time of great stress. The pressures of navigating delicate family dynamics, coping with a job loss, the death of a loved one, or a recent relationship demise all seem magnified during this time of year, said Billy Hallmark, Chief, Army Substance Abuse Program for U.S. Army Garrison-Rock Island Arsenal.

“Triggers can be people, places, routines and events,” he said. “Stressors and other emotional states can also increase the likelihood of alcohol consumption over the holidays. Emotions like loneliness, anxiety, guilt, hopelessness, and depression are powerful and can overwhelm an individual's coping mechanisms. For those who have relied on alcohol in the past to lessen the effects of these emotions, drinking during the holidays may feel like the only way to ‘get through’ the season. Profound life changes can also leave us feeling overwhelmed. This does not refer only to somber events like a recent separation or divorce, a recent health diagnosis, family conflict, or the loss of a loved one.”

In concert with those emotions, not getting adequate sleep and rest can compound these triggers.

“Lack of sleep can also be a cause for bodily stress,” said Hallmark. “Being sleep-deprived impairs your ability to recognize triggers and focus on making good choice about your alcohol use.”

Social anxiety and the desire to celebrate can also have untended consequences regarding alcohol abuse, Hallmark said.

“Happy events like marriage, having a baby, or being promoted at work can be triggers of emotions people may not be good at coping with,” he said. “Sometimes, someone will cope with that sudden change or spotlight by ‘having a few drinks to steady your nerves’ as a way to take the edge off the emotions they are experiencing,” he said.

What is the best way to manage alcohol consumption during the holidays?

Hallmark advises if you are attending celebrations over the holidays and are concerned about the temptation or pressure to drink there are ways to celebrate without consuming alcohol for those in a sobriety, or over-indulging if you are aren’t in an addiction-recovery status.

“Choose to drink more alcohol-free drinks, such as water, juices, and sparkling sodas,” he said. “Alcohol-free drinks help counteract the dehydrating effects of alcohol and may slow the rate of alcohol absorption into the body to reduce the peak alcohol concentration in the blood. Consider bringing your own drinks if you're not sure there will be non-alcoholic drinks available. When celebrating, some individuals will carry an empty bottle or cup, or fill a glass with a non-alcoholic drink, to lessen the chance of another party goer giving them an alcoholic drink. You can also have a few different reasons for why you’re not drinking if people ask, such as, ‘I’m the designated driver tonight’, ‘I’m taking medication’, or ‘I'm choosing not to drink for my health’.”

If you do plan on consuming alcoholic drinks, it is important to eat before tossing back a holiday tipple, and to continue to snack as you drink, Hallmark said.

“When drinking, it is a good idea to eat a variety of healthy foods and snacks. Food can slow the absorption of alcohol and reduce the peak level of alcohol in the body by about one-third,” he said. “Above all, it is a good idea to have a plan before engaging in any activity or event that may lead you to drinking more that you should.”

Tips for abstaining/avoiding alcohol during the holiday season

1) Be selective. It is important to socialize and celebrate with others over the holidays. However, you can be selective about what gatherings you attend. If you're not sure about whether alcohol- using patrons will get out of hand, its probably best to avoid the gathering.

2) Stay busy. Find things that you like to do to that don't involve drinking. Less downtime means less opportunities to choose alcohol to pass the time.

3) Prioritize self-care. Don’t lose sight of your normal routines during the holidays. Be sure to get enough sleep and exercise to keep the holiday blues from sneaking up on you.

4) Rely on your support system. Surround yourself with family and friends who share the same beliefs about alcohol as you do.

5) Plan ahead: Don't get yourself into a situation where you have not previously planned to abstain from drinking. Remember, many people see this as a time of the year to celebrate with alcohol so chances are you will be faced with this reality at many holiday events.

6) If you have been struggling with alcohol misuse in the past, consider attending AA meetings over the holidays and talking with your sponsor (if you have one) about your concerns over the holidays.

What should you do if you think you have a problem with alcohol?

If you or a loved one need assistance with alcohol or drug misuse, or find yourself struggling with other life challenges like anxiety, stress, depression or relationship problems, your RIA Employee Assistance Program is committed to helping by providing free and confidential assessment, short-term counseling, referral, and follow-up services.

If you and your EAP counselor determine that alcohol has created challenges in your life, you will receive contact information for local professionals who provide alcohol misuse assessment and treatment services. You can contact an EAP Counselor by calling; (309) 782-4357 (HELP). Other on-post resources are your organization's chaplain, or the Army Sustainment Command’s chaplain's office (309) 782-0923. Activity duty military personnel and authorized TRICARE recipients can also reach out to the RIA Woodson Health Clinic at (309) 782-0805.

If you, a family member, co-worker, or friend is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. If you are experiencing a crisis and need immediate assistance, call 911 or go to the nearest local community hospital emergency center.