You’ve undoubtedly heard the warnings about the increased risk of relapse over the holidays. Relapse rates for recovering people are high no matter what day of the year it is, and the risk increases on special occasions. Good recovery includes an awareness of relapse triggers and strategies for navigating them.

This discussion about protecting your recovery over the holidays may give you some ideas for supporting yourself through challenging encounters. So, why does holiday time ratchet up the relapse risk for so many recovering people?

Risk Awareness

When you are in familiar surroundings with your regular routine, you have access to your self-care tools and your support system. You spend time with whomever you want to, sleep in your own bed, and have your own transportation. Even with those foundations in place, sobriety requires a rigorous daily commitment. It’s no wonder when you remove that structure by traveling to a holiday gathering, your recovery can be on shaky ground.

While participating in holiday traditions can be meaningful and foster connection with family and friends, memories may trigger subtle associations with substance use and abuse. You can walk into a gathering and not even realize these associations are putting you at risk.

It’s equally important not to dwell too much on your anxiety about the holidays. Remember that millions of other recovering people are walking the same precarious path as you are during the holidays. You are all doing it together. These practical tips for staying sober through traveling, family dynamics, and your drunk Uncle Bud may help keep your anxiety in check and allow you to find some joy in your holiday experience.


Traveling while in recovery can expose you to unexpected situations that trigger your desire to use alcohol or other drugs. Try doing some pre-planning before you embark on your holiday journey. When you arrive at your destination, you may be tired and disoriented. You may be glad you did some work ahead of time.

Identify Relapse Triggers – It may help to remind yourself of your relapse triggers. Maybe you once relapsed on an airplane or rummaged through your aunt’s medicine cabinet on Thanksgiving. Put those on the list. For each item, write down your coping plan. Calling your sponsor, leaving the situation, holding a recovery medallion, and telling a safe person are all good choices.

Specify Support Anchors – Having a plan to speak with your sponsor or a trusted sober friend at the beginning and end of every day anchors your intention to protect your sobriety. If you are flying and know airport bars trigger you, agree to call someone after you check-in for your flight and as soon as you land.

It can be helpful to take a special object or meaningful token with you as a physical reminder of your wellness and recovery. It could be a small stone, a recovery medallion, or a piece of jewelry. Just holding a symbolic item in your hand or your pocket can be grounding and help you reset a difficult interaction.

Use Available Resources – If you work a 12-Step program, you can Google a meeting schedule before you leave and plan to attend some meetings wherever you will be. If you will be seeing a supportive friend or family member over the holidays, contact them before you go. You may feel more comfortable using them for support once you’ve made the connection.


Recovery during the holidays often means exposure to alcohol and other drugs. Couple that with challenging relationship dynamics and you have increased risk of relapse. Visualization is a technique that can help set your intention for your own thoughts and behaviors. You can’t control what others say and do, but you can set intentions for yourself.

For example, if Uncle Bud has never comprehended your recovery and always offers you a martini, visualize yourself handling that expertly. Imagine various scenarios where you confidently navigate the challenge. Maybe you use humor. “Oh, Uncle Bud, you are so funny. You know I don’t drink alcohol. In fact, I’m going to get a soda. It’s so good to see you.” Try visualizing three good outcomes for each circumstance that you think might be challenging. 


Expanding your self-care while you’re away can help strengthen your resolve and reduce stress. It’s easy to skip meals and stay up too late when you are traveling. If you commit to good nutrition, mild exercise, and enough sleep, you may find it’s easier to stay committed to your plan.

If you have a regular prayer and meditation practice, this is a good time to commit to it. Taking 10 or 15 minutes to slow down, breathe consciously and notice how you are feeling can balance your nervous system and reduces stress.


Service work is an important part of recovery for many people. Helping others keeps you focused on service and less on yourself. Volunteering is a good idea, but it may not be possible while traveling. Service can also mean helping others in practical ways. Maybe you will have the opportunity to prepare food, read to your grandmother, or play a game with your nephew. Selfless good deeds can keep your mind occupied, bolster self-esteem, and elicit gratitude.

It’s smart to be cautious around holiday travel and festivities. Reviewing your relapse triggers and creating some structure for challenging times is part of sobriety. Doing a little bit of preparation to protect your recovery can free you up to find some enjoyment in connecting with family and friends. Being cautious doesn’t mean you can’t have any fun. You can do this!