The Holidays and binge drinking: The most wonderful time of the year?

From the time the turkey is plated to the New Year’s ball drop at Times Square, here are some practical tips to avoid getting swept up in the holiday whirlwind.

minute read
By Jim Scarpace MS, LCPC, Executive Director, Gateway Foundation

The cold weather and falling leaves usher in a month of spiced lattes, colorful lights, brightly wrapped gifts and holiday gatherings. But for all the joy and good tidings it brings, it can also be a time of stress and unrealistic expectations of ourselves, others and the meaning of it all. The stress that these unrealistic expectations cause leads many to turn to alcohol and other substances in an attempt to cope.

Researchers have found marked increases in average alcohol consumption during the holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. For the estimated 20% of Americans who struggle with or are genetically predisposed to an alcohol or substance use disorder, the holidays are especially challenging and can intensify negative feelings. The good news is that awareness and early intervention can make the season brighter and safer. Read more here, and send us your questions via the comments section at the end.

Holiday spirits

During the holidays we’re bombarded with nostalgic images of time spent with friends and family — singing carols, lighting candles, rekindling traditions, setting aside differences. It’s the few months out of the year when we are encouraged to be generous in thought and deed, and show our appreciation for the people in our lives by giving gifts and hosting festive celebrations. But for many of us, that picture-perfect image is less than ideal.

For anyone who is alone or has lost a loved one, the season can bring up feelings of grief, not joy. Especially if it’s the first holiday without this person.

The holidays are also challenging for nearly one-third of Americans who struggle financially and say they barely make ends meet. The pressure to buy expensive gifts can lead to mounting debt and stress.

Unresolved family issues, too, can lead to conflict or feelings of shame or not fitting in.

So, whether you’re celebrating or recovering, emotions tend to run high during the holidays. With all the parties and easy access to alcohol or drugs, it’s easy to unknowingly binge or to relapse in an effort to relieve those intense feelings.

Tips for managing

According to a CASColumbia report, 40 million Americans age 12 and over meet the clinical criteria for addiction involving alcohol or other drugs. Another 80 million fall into the category of risky substance users, defined as those who are not addicted, but use alcohol and other drugs in ways that are dangerous to health and safety. These people represent an opportunity for early intervention. At Gateway Foundation, our clinicians have helped thousands of individuals successfully complete treatment by developing a personalized plan that treats the underlying causes of substance use disorder—not just addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Whether you’re at risk or care about someone who is, here are some ways to keep from getting swept up in the holiday storm:

1. Be observant of what’s “normal.”

The media is full of negative stereotypes of addiction behaviors, such as:

  • oversleeping
  • isolating
  • flying off the handle easily
  • missing work


In reality, what’s normal depends on the person. Many people who self-medicate depression, anxiety and grief may be socially outgoing, talkative and regularly show up for work. If you’re worried that someone you care about is struggling with drugs or alcohol, watch for changes from their typical behavior — even if some of these changes may seem more socially acceptable.

2. Share your concern.

Having a conversation is very different from having a confrontation. Telling someone they have a problem only leads to defensiveness and closing down communications. The best approach is to speak from your perspective as someone who cares, to share what you’re experiencing or observing — without labels or judgment.

3. Prepare.

If you’re someone who is struggling with drug or alcohol use, it’s important to be aware of the things that get under your skin and can trigger strong feelings that you might prefer to avoid. Plan for events where you know you’ll be challenged – whether you feel socially awkward at a company party, are attending a gathering where you’re sure to run into that family member who brings up your past or are celebrating with friends who want to toast the New Year. Having a plan in place can make the difference between relapse and recovery during the holidays.

4. Be mindful.

Despite our best efforts, we sometimes take the path of least resistance. Whether you’re in recovery or have struggled with drug or alcohol use, if you notice a trend of excessive drinking or you’re turning to drugs or alcohol to manage your emotions, those are warning signs. First, it’s important in these situations to notice what’s happening — and then to identify what you can do about it.

5. Ask for help.

If you’re worried about relapsing or concerned that you might not be able to make the changes you want to on your own, don’t wait. It’s one thing that doesn’t get better or easier with time. Instead, seek help from friends, family and treatment professionals.

Consider it a gift to yourself.

Holiday binge drinking and help

Gateway Foundation is setting out to spread awareness regarding holiday binge drinking and the benefits of entering treatment during the holiday season. It’s easy to unintentionally binge drink during the holidays, where reasons to celebrate are around every corner. It’s also easy for a person struggling with a substance use disorder to hold off on entering treatment at year’s end.

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol or drugs, don’t wait to get help. Give the gift of a fresh start. Gateway has treatment centers conveniently located throughout Illinois. We offer both outpatient and residential treatment options and accept most insurance plans. Call our 24/7 helpline at 877-505-HOPE (4673) and take the first step to getting life back on track.

Holiday pressure and addiction questions

If you have any questions or would like to share a comment, please use the designated section at the bottom of the page. We try to provide personal and prompt answers to all legitimate inquiries. In case we don’t know the answer to your questions, we will gladly refer you to professionals who can help.

About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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