7 Tips to Survive the Holidays Without a Drink

By: Holly Whitaker

How the hell do you stay sober over the holidays? We've got you covered.

I originally wrote this post in 2014, and the irony is I stayed up until three in the morning on my sister’s couch in Los Angeles. I wrote it because I was desperate for folks to know they had choices, to know that they could get through ANY day without drinking, to know that days like Thanksgiving or Yom Kippur or Christmas or New Year’s Eve were not obstacles on their path, but grand opportunities to practice a different way of being, or to strengthen their resolve not to drink.

You can use this outlined process below to help you deal with the upcoming holiday season, or really any social event you’re going into where you don’t want to drink, but worry you might be tempted (or coerced). 

Note this is written for people who plan to be around other people. If you’re spending this holiday season alone due to the pandemic (or any other reason) this is a chance to do that deeply uncomfortable practice of getting together online. We offer group calls multiple times a week through Tempest Membership where you can meet and talk about the current challenges you’re facing with other members. Plus, I’ll be hosting a series of Holiday Q&As on the big drinking days throughout the year. 

If you’re not part of our community, you can look to the many organizations (She Recovers, In the Rooms, Recovery Dharma) to find online gatherings of sober folks on the holidays.

1. Go into it knowing you’re not going to drink.

This I cannot stress enough. Drinking doesn’t begin with drinking alcohol. As all actions do, It begins with a thought. A seed is planted in our mind, and our bodies carry out the action. If you’re on the fence as you go into the holiday (or event) about whether or not you are going to drink, you are planting the seed that you might drink, leaving it as an option, and therefore, setting yourself up for some major battle of will, unnecessary guilt, and—most likely—a not so sober holiday. The strength to do comes from your undivided decision, not your hope that you’ll make the right decision when you’re smack in the middle of the pressure to drink. So, before your next holiday event, make up your mind ahead of time by eliminating the option altogether and tell yourself you are not going to drink. No matter what. Write it down, repeat it to yourself. “No matter what, I am not going to drink today.” 

2. Envision yourself not drinking and remember “If you’ve been there in the mind, you’ll go there in the body.”

This one comes from the book The Secret (yes, that book). In it, Dr. Denis Waitley describes how he used Visual Motor Rehearsal to train Olympic athletes. He had them perform their events in their mind, and visualizing their events fired the same muscles as did the actual physical performance. When it comes to not drinking during a stressful holiday or event, we can use the same practice. Take five minutes the day of or day before, and visualize yourself making it through without drinking. See yourself getting ready and doing a breath exercise, see yourself getting in your car and showing up, see yourself walking in and practice what you’ll say when someone offers you wine (“No thanks,” “No thanks I’m not drinking today,” etc). If you’re at home cooking with your family or even by yourself, do the appropriate visualization going through the events. See yourself making it through cooking, eating, a game, a movie, or whatever events you usually partake in during the holiday that generally include alcohol, and see yourself doing it without imbibing. Watch yourself leave fully sober, get home, go to bed, even see yourself waking up the next day. Plan the whole thing in your mind, rehearse it, and when the time comes for the actual event, you’ll be prepared for it. You’ve done this before in your mind, and that is every bit as powerful as actually doing it.

3. Get excited about it!

Once you’ve made up your mind and done your visualization, get super pumped about it. Better yet, start visualizing yourself sober and drinking fizzy water as everyone else becomes inebriated, and feel the sense of pride in your restraint. Imagine the extra slices of pie you can consume or whatever the hell it is you skimp on (I dread saying that because it invokes this idea of “earning calories” but still, as someone who traded food calories for alcohol calories for years, it was a very exciting prospect). Imagine how much healthier (read: not hungover) you’ll feel the next day! Imagine remembering the whole night, what it will feel like to not be hungover or sick with the long weekend ahead of you, and returning to work on Monday refreshed. 

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4. Get your sobriety toolbox ready.

We've discussed the sobriety toolbox before as a collection of coping mechanisms that you can reply on besides alcohol. Come up with a list of five things that help you manage stress, keep you happy, and in your peace. Some of my favorites to take with me on the holidays: 

  • Lavender oil or peppermint oil. When I feel overwhelmed or on edge or disconnected or even depressed, I place a drop on my hands, rub my palms together, cup my nose, and inhale deeply a few times. Instant mood change. Use a citrus based oil like grapefruit or lemon if you struggle with holiday blues. You can pick up essential oils on Amazon or at natural foods stores like Whole Foods.
  • This meditation. This is a Kundalini meditation called “Sunia Antar Meditation,” (I still use Kundalini, though we don’t teach it in the Tempest program anymore, read about that here). This is my go to holiday meditation. It’s simple and effective, and you can do it in the bathroom if you need a quick fix.
  • 10 Long Deep Breaths. If you can control your breath, you can control your mind. You can do this non-ceremoniously (like while in line at a store or even at the dinner table—just inhale for a count of five and exhale for a count of five), or you can find a quiet private place and do it meditation style as follows. Sit in an easy pose (legs folded in front of you). Breath in through your nose for a count of five, eyes closed and rolled up to your third eye point if possible. Breath out the mouth, exhaling to a count of five. For extra release, stick your tongue out as you exhale and make a “HAAAAAAA” sound, blowing out the air, the heat, and the stress. For a full tutorial check out this post.
  • Soothing Tea. I carry Kava Stress Relief tea with me wherever I go. You can also try chamomile, holy basil, or any herbal tea. A lot of times just the simple act of drinking something that we count as healing or nourishing is enough to pull us back to ourselves.

5. Act like a vegan.

Remember that you are a non-drinker, it’s a choice you have made, and you are by no means obligated to engage in discussions about your choice. You don’t push sobriety on others or ask them why they do drink, and you are not required to justify or explain your choice. You don’t drink, or you’re temporarily not drinking. End of story. I was a vegetarian for years, and when I stopped drinking I used the same technique I did when I didn’t eat meat—I was proud of my decision, not embarrassed that I couldn’t eat meat. I didn’t engage in conversations about cows or chickens, and I didn’t feel sad about not eating the gravy. I just didn’t eat meat or meat products, and that was it. 

6. Use interactions with others as a chance to grow.

Remember holidays can bring out the worst in everyone. If you're going to be around your family of origin, it’s pretty normal to regress, to act out the roles we’ve always acted out. A few things that have helped me over the years as I’ve watched myself completely deconstruct in a matter of minutes when I’m around my family are the following:

  • You have control over your reactions. What anyone says to you or how they act towards you is never about you. It’s about them and their perception of the world, their judgments, their story. Your reaction to them, however, is about you. Keep the focus on that. It’s the only thing you have control over—your reaction.
  • Relationships are assignments. Consider everyone an angel or a spiritual teacher. This is something I employ on the daily when someone really gets me going—I pretend they were sent to me for the specific purpose of training to be less reactive, less mean, less defensive, less impatient. If I can remember to insert this into my interactions, I can remember to use something really triggering to practice not being triggered, to choose a different way.
  • Defense is the first act of war. Don’t engage and remember your safety lies in your defenselessness. The first act of war is defense. And so it goes, that if you find yourself letting someone push your buttons, or find yourself defending something, you are perpetuating the problem. The best way to handle a situation that tends to get your goat is to simply remove your energy from the situation. I always imagine when someone says something to me that makes me want to jump into defense or attack mode, that they are swinging at me, and instead of blocking the punch or swinging back, I move out of the way. I imagine their energy floating right past me, and them tiring themselves out when the punches they are throwing aren’t landing. Don’t defend, don’t swing back, and find POWER in your ability to not engage and perpetuate bad energy. I always make sure to note this does not mean “Do not stand up for yourself” or “Just deal with abuse.” No, it doesn’t mean that. There is a difference between people being dicks and people being harmful. 
  • Set major boundaries and uphold them. You don’t have to engage in every conversation or relationship, you don’t have to do everything you’re asked, you don’t have to do anything that compromises your sobriety or your path. All you have to do is take care of yourself and keep in mind that you are in recovery from something that kills people. So act like it.

This might sound weird, but I actually gamified all this: whenever I go into a family situation, or any situation where I’m going to be challenged, I use it as a test of how much I can remain in my center. I enjoy the difficulty because it gives me ample opportunity to find the places I’m wounded and work with it.

7. Reward yourself.

Practice extreme self-care and reward yourself. Self-care is beyond important—especially during the holiday season (and especially this holiday season) when we’re dealing with COVID, dealing with the aftermath of the election, possibly traveling, possibly out of our routine, and possibly engaging in stressful relationships. Stay hydrated, take baths or showers, keep your meditation practice (or if you don’t have one, start a meditation practice), set aside time to journal, eat good food, and relax. Find a way to reward yourself for not drinking—it doesn’t matter what it is, maybe it’s buying something, eating something, going on a hike or a walk, or just staying in your pjs all day and watching trashy TV. Decide what it is now, decide when you’ll do it, make the arrangements to carry it out, put it on your calendar, and do it.

Lastly, I’d like you to remember that you’re not alone. There are lots of people who opt out of drinking during the holidays, for so many different reasons. What you’re doing—this process of recovery—is hard work. Especially during the holidays. So give yourself a little bit of credit for showing up for yourself today.

About Tempest

Tempest is a holistic, evidence-based digital recovery program that helps you stop drinking and feel better. Our yearly membership program offers three plans, designed to help you create your own personal Recovery Roadmap. Through support, community, and a dedicated staff, we’ll teach you how to make small, realistic changes to build a foundation for the kind of life you want.

In a study done in partnership with the University of Buffalo and Syracuse University, Tempest members reported a 50% reduction in their symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (problematic drinking) and a 25% reduction in the severity of anxiety and depression symptoms.