In many ways, the holidays are an invitation to ritual — think religious services, work parties, family meals… While many of these activities can cause stress and trigger cravings, therapeutic routines designed to protect recovery and mental health are an essential part of living a sober life.
When my life gets busy or stressful, as it inevitably does during the holidays, I lean hard onto my sober rituals, modifying them or even creating new ones in order to remain centered and calm. These practices can also help with COVID-related stress and help create a new sense of normalcy during difficult times when you might not be seeing your loved ones this season.
1. Sleep Hygiene
According to sleep experts, the current public health crisis is a breeding ground for insomnia. A surreal-feeling holiday where everything from travel to household budgets is restricted could add fuel to the fire. And yet developing a simple bedtime routine can go a long way toward increasing one’s chance of deep rest. Mine looks something like this: Light some candles and diffuse some lavender oil, listen to a soothing playlist or meditate via apps like Insight Timer, Plum Village, or Abide — and this may sound obvious — check the boxes of basic self-care by brushing my teeth, washing my face, and changing into a fresh pair of pajamas. Whatever your routine looks like, SleepFoundation.org recommends winding down for at least 30 minutes, dimming the lights to stimulate melatonin production, and disconnecting from electronics.
2. Self-Care Bag
In the event that you are traveling for the holidays (or just making a trip to a busy mall), it can be helpful to rely on a small self-care bag in your purse that contains coping tools and comforting sensory items. This is something tangible you can turn to if you feel panicky, triggered to use, or even bored, and it is a meaningful act of self-love to take the time to create it. Mine is a black felt bag that says “Persist” in white letters and holds index cards with mantras, breathing technique instructions, a list of the 15 Styles of Distorted Thinking, a CBD and lavender oil serum, and a few packets of my favorite herbal tea.
3. Daily Affirmations
Another empowering routine to start during this time of year (which might be especially useful if the holidays mean increased contact with difficult family members) is to create a daily affirmation for yourself and then set up notifications in your phone so these assuring words pop up throughout your day. Members of Tempest receive an affirmation every morning in their email, but it’s easy enough to create your own by briefly checking in with yourself in the morning to offer yourself the words you most need to hear. Some of my personal favorites are “Today I commit to practicing sobriety,” “I am powerful and I am loved,” and “Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today” (a line from Alcoholics Anonymous).
4. Modified Morning & Evening Rituals
Maintaining some form of your morning and evening ritual on holy days or days of celebration grounds you in your sobriety when you might need it the most. Plan something you can realistically commit to — a cup of tea and a gratitude list? Fifteen minutes of yoga? Whatever works for you… The key is consistency. If you don’t currently have these routines in place, use the holiday season as an opportunity to cultivate some time for both you and your recovery at the bookends of your day.
5. Morning Festivities
The longer I am sober, the more I plan my days around the morning. No one says you can’t be sober and be a night owl, but you might give mornings a-go. Some evidence says human beings have finite stores of willpower, so orienting your holiday preparations, celebrations, gatherings, and outings toward the morning, if possible, may make you better equipped to decline that first drink. Morning gatherings may also be less triggering if you associate drinking with the evening. If you are traveling for the holidays, check out Episode 132 of The Unruffled Podcast in which sober creative Tammi Salas discusses her beautiful mornings in Paris.
6. Traditional Holiday Rituals You Enjoy
With the myriad ways COVID has uprooted day-to-day life, this might be the year to dig into the holiday rituals you find therapeutic and either avoid or simplify ones that cause you stress. For instance, I plan to reconnect with friends and family I have missed during shelter-in-place by purchasing some festive stationery and writing individual notes.
7. Walking Habit
With increased demands on your time, it can be helpful to simplify your exercise routine. For me, this means walking a lot (shooting for 10,000 steps a day!) in addition to several yoga classes per week. According to Dr. Dorsey Dysart, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, neurologist, and addiction specialist based in Saint Louis, Missouri, psychiatric medications are 50 percent more effective if patients combine them with a brisk, 30-minute morning walk, and ideally, one or two additional 30-minute walks throughout the day. Walking is also is an excellent way to deal with cravings.
8. A New Spiritual Practice
Adopting a new spiritual practice during the holidays can both reduce stress and honor the spiritual and religious roots of the season. The options abound — you might try a new form of meditation such as centering prayer, read a spiritual or religious text you’ve always been curious about, or simply spend more time in nature.
In the last few months, I have been practicing a Buddhist breathing technique called Tonglen. Essentially, you breathe in pain with the wish that all people could be free of pain anytime you encounter suffering, however big or small. Likewise, when you experience happiness, you breathe it out with the wish that all people could experience joy. As Pema Chodron explains in the book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, the idea is to reverse the all-too-common habit of withholding joy and sending pain out into the world.
Times are definitely hard right now, but I do believe that one way to enact change in the world is through the ripple effect that is created when I dedicate time and energy to being a healthy, recovering individual. I invite you to join me in carrying out some of these rituals and routines for a healthier, happier, and stress-free holiday season.