By Frederick Goggans, MD

It’s important for people to have a realistic attitude about the potential for anxiety or conflict during the holiday season— especially individuals who have issues with alcohol or drug abuse.

Most of us go into the holiday period hoping for a harmonious time with family, friends, and co-workers, but there may be hidden conflicts based on past experiences or expectations that may not be realized. The tension between the reality of our situations and our idealized images of holiday harmony can lead to anxiety. To manage that anxiety, many use alcohol or other substances excessively.

For clinicians like myself who work on substance use and recovery issues, we often see these individuals when the holidays are over. In January, many people enter treatment having overreacted to holiday events by abusing drugs or alcohol, having suicidal thoughts, or engaging in injurious behaviors. In some cases, their activities stem from disappointment or rejection—they may see themselves as disappointing someone, or someone disappointing them during the holiday period. In any event, some of these people may come to treatment in a quasi-emergency situation, either through intoxication or withdrawal, a suicide attempt, or an attempt to injure oneself, and they sometimes may need to be stabilized in a hospital setting.

If you are at risk for these behaviors, be realistic about how the holidays can increase your anxiety and stress and lead to dangerous behavior. But also, realize that you can take steps before and during the holidays to avoid problems. Here are a few suggestions:

• If you have a history of substance abuse or alcohol abuse, it’s important to protect yourself. If you are involved in a recovery program, stay centered in your program by continuing to go to meetings. Connect with like-minded and sober individuals in your program, and remain in contact with your sponsor and peers. Don’t isolate.

• Embrace the holiday spirit and try not to be too self-absorbed. Be of service to others by taking part in volunteer activities. Also, take advantage of the many special events that most mutual help organizations present during the holiday season. Stay involved and engaged.

• Be sure to concentrate on your overall health. By eating properly, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly, you can keep your body sound, as well as your mind.

• Keep an eye on the types of activities you’re involved in over the holidays, and avoid risky situations. But, if you find yourself in an environment where drugs or alcohol are being used, know where the doors are and have an exit strategy.

My colleague Mark Longsjo, MSW, often talks about the stress that the holidays can bring  and has developed a wonderful guide that all of us can use. With his permission, I’m including it here.

Below are four key factors that can lead to holiday stress and the strategies that can help reduce their effects.


We all overdo it. We know the importance of a balanced diet, moderate exercise, and plenty of sleep, but because there are so many distractions and stressors this time of year, we lose sight of some of the basic necessities. We need to take care of ourselves and pay increased attention to ensuring that we fulfill these areas of our lives as we get closer to the holidays.


It’s easy to get caught up in the commercialization and the marketing of the holidays. Advertisers will take advantage of our susceptibility, but we have the ability to put it in perspective and remind ourselves that we are the ones creating that anxiety, and we are the ones who can reduce it. To counter this, help a neighbor, a friend, a family member, or a stranger. It’s the act of giving that is more important than the gift.

Financial Stress

Giving to others is not about spending money, and of course, what goes along with setting realistic expectations is to maintain a budget and be transparent. It’s important to not overspend and keep in mind that “less is more.” It’s an old adage, but sometimes the personal gifts are the best ones—like tickets to a show, or even a poem, short story, or framed photo. It’s the act of giving that makes it meaningful.


While it’s true that many of us have friends and family to visit during the holiday season, there’s also the danger of becoming isolated. Be careful not to isolate yourself—especially if you have a predisposition to getting depressed. One idea that works is to remind yourself of the people, places, and things that make you feel happy. Surround yourself with everyone and everything that makes you feel better.

I am hopeful that you will take our words to heart, as we want everyone to have a joyous and happy holiday season! This year, you may find yourself in a better place than you were in last year. There could be an opportunity for you to take stock of your success and get validation from your loved ones. Be sure to celebrate your sobriety!

Frederick Goggans, MD, is the Medical Director of Borden Cottage, a McLean Hospital Signature Recovery Program located in Camden, Maine. Dr. Goggans oversees a team of expert clinicians who provide residential treatment for individuals with drug and alcohol addictions.

Addiction to alcohol, opiates, or other substances is a serious psychiatric illness, most often  complicated by other mental health diagnoses such as depression and anxiety. At McLean Hospital, we are committed to providing exceptional clinical care to help individuals work toward recovery. If you or a loved one needs help overcoming addiction, please call 877.203.1211 to learn more about our Signature Recovery Programs.