For many people, the holidays are a joyous time to return home and reconnect with loved ones. They celebrate family traditions and attend diverse religious ceremonies, unwrap colorful gifts and cook large meals with care. Around the table, they toast health and happiness for all.

My holiday experiences were different, especially prior to my recovery… and even now, sometimes. For me, the holidays meant anxiety and shame and feelings of inadequacy. My inability to buy as many gifts as I felt I should heightened these feelings. And my perceived financial and professional inferiority exacerbated my physical insecurity — I always felt less presentable around my family. The fact that it usually took me a few drinks just to walk through the door did not help matters.

The combination of negative feelings and alcohol use caused me to isolate myself. To be comfortable socializing, I would drink more. But too many times I would cross a line and behave poorly, or become more withdrawn. It was hard for my loved ones to watch this pattern, and eventually I was not always welcome at my family’s holiday gatherings. I am thankful for these unsuccessful holidays — believe it or not. They have motivated me to seek the help that set me on my path to recovery.

The new skills and self-care strategies I acquired in recovery saved my holidays… and my life!

If you find yourself in a similar situation, hopefully these practices of self-care and service will be of use to you as well. Before any holiday event, I ask myself a few questions:

  • What about this event makes me anxious?
  • What could help me feel more comfortable?
  • Am I allowing my anxiety to “determine the future?”
  • Is there someone I trust with whom I can talk to about these feelings?
  • What are some healthy boundaries I can set for myself before the event?
  • What self-care practice might make me more comfortable?

Sometimes, self-care means skipping the event entirely! If you feel too overwhelmed to attend social gatherings, listen to yourself.

Having said that, no one loves missing out on the holidays, so it’s important to have other strategies for actually attending some events.

Personally, I’ve learned that taking a moment to myself is invaluable. Finding time for a personal moment and taking a deep breath allows me to better process my feelings. This usually helps reduce my stress and anxiety to a manageable level, allowing me to participate and share in the joy of the season.

Participating has been an important part of my growth. For me, participation involves service. My experiences at local 12-step meetings have deeply instilled in me the value of serving others. This is especially helpful around the holidays, where serving and selflessness are baked into the season. To ensure I am participating and serving, I ask myself these general questions:

  • Who have I helped today?
  • Have I thought about others?
  • Have I asked how I can help?

You’d be surprised how easy it is to participate when you’re looking for ways to serve others. The holiday season offers numerous service opportunities. I find volunteering at shelters always puts my internally-skewed views into a perspective of gratitude. One of my personal favorites in Santa Barbara is Transition House. They offer volunteer opportunities to serve dinner to homeless families with children in their main shelter. They also need help gift wrapping the donated toys!

Of course, serving does not have to be a grand gesture. Cooking for family and friends is serving. Gift-giving is a form of serving. Donating, helping with dishes, pet sitting. There are all kinds of ways to serve and participate around the holidays. All you have to do is find the way that works best for you.

Serving allows us to find our place of gratitude, our place of hope. When I am helping others, I don’t have time to spin on the hamster wheel in my mind.

I have honed my skills with all of these tools on my own personal journey of recovery and self-care. Joy is contagious.I find that when I care best for myself, I share my joy with others most freely. My wish is to share my joy with you and help you share yours as well.

This article was originally published on the Sanctuary Center’s blog.

If you have any helpful tips or tools for making it through the holidays, please leave a comment! I look forward to reading them and continuing this conversation.