If you or someone you love is trying to change your relationship to alcohol or other substances, the holiday season is often a particularly stressful and difficult time to stay true to your goals. Family events, work parties, back-to-back cocktail parties are the norm, and eggnog and special spirits at every event are all a set up for decision fatigue. How many times can you say no to the offer to have a drink?

And yet, it is possible to make and maintain changes to your substance use even during this season and reduce your own decision fatigue. The key to achieving this is to cope ahead, which means identifying difficult times and situations that you are going to be in, and then think about how you are going to cope with those situations BEFORE you actually end up in them. The more you cope ahead, the more ready you are for a difficult moment, and the more prepared you are to make difficult and exhausting decisions.

Start with Awareness

As you go into this season, it can be a great time to slow down and really evaluate how you want to spend your time over the holidays. While it may feel to you like it’s a requirement to go to every holiday party, or to show up at every event in a jolly mood, you do have the ability to make different choices about how you spend your holiday season. And, even though everything around you seems to be going at a breakneck pace, taking some time to pause and think about what you want your holiday season to look like can help you focus your attention on what matters to you. Start by answering the following questions:

  • Who do I really want to spend time with?
  • How do I want to spend my time?
  • How do I want to feel about myself as I go into the new year?

It is easy to mindlessly get caught up in saying yes to every invite or saying yes to an invite that puts you in a situation where maintaining your goals will be difficult. Answering these questions may lead you to realize that you don’t actually want to go to some of the parties that used to be on your “must go!” list. For example, New Years Eve celebrations can be especially fraught as there almost seems to be a mandate that alcohol be involved in the hours leading into the new year. Maybe it’s time to plan something else, or even stay home and skip it altogether!

Create Your Coping Plan

Parties, social gatherings, family events all have the potential to be tricky and difficult. Even in professional settings, the holiday party is often seen as a time to “let loose.” If there is a party that you feel you do have to (or want to) attend, these coping skills can help you reduce the impact that it may have on you.

  • Bookending – This skill is all about reducing the amount of decision fatigue you have to face, and decreasing the time you need to rebound from that fatigue. To create a bookend on an event, you want to plan something before the event that is soothing and calming, so that you go into the event with the most energy and decision making potential you can. Then, you plan something that gets you out of the event at a specific time. This way, you’re not there too long (reducing decision fatigue) and hopefully gets you out while you still enjoyed it!
  • Distracting – While some people equate distraction with avoidance, there is a distinction between the two. Distraction is shifting your focus away from something that is difficult or triggering, and instead focusing on something that is soothing, enjoyable, or even just neutral. The goal of distraction is to keep you from getting overwhelmed by the situation, and giving you some space so that you can then go back to it and cope with it. If you’re never planning on returning to the situation to cope with it, then you’ve entered into avoidance.

    So, how do you distract? There are an infinite number of ways, but here are a few to get you started. Try counting backward from 100 by 7’s, or think about how you would get to a friend’s house (turns, street names, and all). Or, get lost on something on your phone, like funny youtube videos or a particularly amusing Instagram account you follow. Or you can give yourself a task, like “I’m going to go look for So-and-So at the party” so that you can move around and not be stuck in any situation. Any of these can distract you from a particularly difficult moment.

  • Conversing – You may be wondering how this could possibly be a coping skill, but if you can plan some conversations ahead of time, that can help you fill uncomfortable silences and feel more confident in the moment. How do you plan conversations ahead of time? You look up interesting topics of conversation before you go! Maybe you google strange news (NPR has a whole section on it!) to get some ideas. Or think about topics you know people you might see are interested in. By planning ahead, you can make a difficult situation more tolerable.

The holiday season can be great, and it can be really stressful and hard. How you experience it will depend on, in part, how much you prepare. Taking some time can make your holiday season feel great.