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It’s a Science: What About Holiday Stress That Makes Relapse So Risky

How the Holidays Affect Patients Under Alcohol Addiction Treatment

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It’s true: In many ways, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. But for those who are under alcohol addiction treatment, the holidays may feel more like a battle. Why would this joyful time induce cravings to go back to the substances you’ve been working to live without? It comes down to science.

Many people feel holiday stress. Sometimes it’s planning for large family gatherings or all the shopping to finish. It might be an especially busy time at work, getting ready for the end of the year. Or maybe it’s something about the season that makes you feel especially emotional and reminiscent. Stress is not just something we complain about to our friends – stress is a biological reaction that changes our body chemistry. And if this is the case for us, how much more challenging would it be for people who are under alcohol addiction treatment?

Here’s how stress works: when you experience increasing levels of emotional or psychological stress, it triggers something in the brain. It’s that old evolutionary “fight or flight” response when the body senses its in danger. As a response to whatever is making your brain feel anxious, the body releases a hormone called cortisol, which releases glucose and insulin. It’s the body’s way of coping.

For addicts, this release, this stress, actually chemically escalates the craving for drugs or alcohol. Its not just about using drugs or turning to alcohol to cope because of anxiety and negative emotions (although, of course, that may contribute). It’s a parallel biological process. Substances like alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, even high-fat comfort foods, can all modify the stress pathways. The substances temporarily seem to reduce the chemical release, and make you feel like you’ve controlled the response.

Of course though, it isn’t a solution. It’s a slippery slope. With addiction, you are susceptible to wanting more and more, because the disease has trained your brain to crave the substances. And many experiments show that stress begets more stress – so once you relapse from your alcohol addiction treatment during a stressful time, the loss of self-control is a fast downward spiral.

But knowing how it works helps us know how to control it. Recognizing moments of stress and identifying the cravings as a response to the hormones will help you keep yourself in check and stick to your alcohol addiction treatment. It’s also important to know that your feelings of stress are completely valid. Once you can acknowledge that the urge to relapse is being triggered by very specific stressors, you can start finding other ways to cope. Keep in touch with whoever is helping you through recovery, continue going to group meetings, and find other ways to experience joy during this time. It may also help to try turning negative stressful situations into positive ones. For example, going to a big party may be overwhelming, but if you are surrounded by people you care about, it may remind you why you stay sober and how relapsing would hurt those relationships.

It can be a hard time of year. But we encourage you to take a moment to breathe, enjoy the simple pleasures of a warm fireplace or a cup of cider, and remember that the holidays are truly about being with the people who love and support you.

For more information on stress and alcohol addiction treatment, check out the links below:

http://www.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/sciofaddiction.pdf
http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/23/health/lifeswork-stress-sinha/
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2732004/

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