For many people, it’s common for the bright lights of the festive holiday season to be tinged with the shadow of sadness. Feelings of loneliness, anxiety, or melancholy can be triggered for anyone, but that can be especially true for people who are working on sobriety. While the “holiday blues” often go away, sometimes they intensify into a sense of depression. If you are in the early stages of your recovery journey or you have a mental health issue that was co-occurring with your addiction, you may be concerned about whether sobriety can cause depression during the holidays. That is why it’s important to recognize the kinds of feelings you may experience during the holiday season, and how you can address them in healthy ways that don’t increase your risk of relapsing.
Can sobriety cause the holiday blues and depression?
Sobriety doesn’t cause depression, but you may be more susceptible to it, as well as other difficult emotions, during the holidays.
If you are like most people who are recovering from addiction, sobriety is a world away from the life you used to lead. With drugs and alcohol, you probably were able to escape your problems when you were high, and because you were focused on chasing that substance-induced euphoria, your normal life fell away as you were entirely consumed with your addiction.
With sobriety, however, there is no substance you can use as a crutch to anesthetize yourself from hard situations or feelings. Now, that’s not a bad thing if you are surrounded by a healthy support network and participating in counseling or a 12-step program, because they will give you the tools you need to process these feelings and emotions and eventually get to a healthier place. But if you are not dealing with these issues, they can manifest in feelings of anxiety, nervousness, and sadness.
Another potential trigger for the holiday blues is that this season will look different for you when you are newly sober. If past years were spent carousing at holiday parties or going out for drinks with coworkers or friends, you may be left wondering how to spend the holidays without drugs or alcohol as factors. This can create a sense of loneliness or isolation as you feel you have to avoid the people and places that were fixtures of past substance-fueled holidays but you’re not sure how to replace them. Of course, sticking with these same activities can present their own problems. If you go out with friends who are drinking and you are not, it may create some tension. If they don’t understand your sobriety goals, they may not support you and try to get you to indulge, saying things like, “It’s just one night; let loose,” or, “It won’t hurt to have just one drink.” In order to feel accepted or not alone, it may be tempting to succumb—and while that may feel good in the moment, it won’t be long before you will feel terrible that you relapsed.
Another trigger that can cause anxiety or sadness is relationships. Intimacy can be collateral damage of an addiction—friendships, marriages, and family relationships can all be dealt devastating blows. If your meaningful relationships suffered because of your substance abuse, you may be grappling with how to repair them, and mourning the loss of the happiness you once had before your addiction spiraled out of control. You may also be grieving the loss of loved ones and that is hitting you deeply during the holidays. Or perhaps you feel disconnected and alone because your family is far away and circumstances prevent you from being there with them. All of these situations can cause profound emotional trauma.
It is one thing to experience these emotions during the holidays, and then feel stronger with the onset of a new year, which signals renewal and a time to start fresh. That’s considered the holiday blues. But for some people, depression may linger on well after that. Clinical depression—in which you feel depressed almost every day for two weeks or longer—brings persistent sadness and anxiety, as well as changes to mood, appetite, and sleep habits, lethargy, and other problems. If you are experiencing these symptoms and wondering can your sobriety cause your depression, you need to seek qualified help immediately to talk about the emotional and mental health issues at hand.
What to do if you want to prevent sobriety from causing depression
Being proactive can help you get through the holiday season with your sobriety intact. The first thing to do is carefully plan out your time. With parties, shopping for gifts, events, and other functions, your calendar is probably jam-packed with things to do. But if you are too busy, you may not find the time to take care of yourself. Carve out a specific time each morning to spend on relaxation techniques or meditating to ground your day and prevent stress from getting the upper hand. It’s also good to exercise regularly and sleep well so you feel strong and healthy.
Make sure you also have time for friends who know about your sobriety journey and are willing to encourage you. It can be helpful to grab a cup of coffee with them if you are craving connection with someone, or they can be your sobriety buddy at holiday parties where you know alcohol will be served. You will also want to accommodate time in your days for any 12-step meetings or counseling sessions; if you are traveling for the holidays, find group meetings at your location in advance of your trip. This support network can be crucial in helping you through any bouts of sadness, anxiety, or depression.
Finally, if this is your first holiday that you are spending sober, find a way to celebrate that. Sobriety is a wonderful thing for your body, mind, and soul, and the holiday blues are only a temporary blip compared to a life lived in healthy sobriety. You may want to commemorate your sobriety by creating a new holiday tradition—instead of going out for drinks with friends, go ice skating instead, or host a cookie decorating party. You may also choose to help someone less fortunate by volunteering at a soup kitchen, animal shelter, or other nonprofit that serves people in need. This will give you a sense of purpose as well as the opportunity to meet other people. You should be proud of yourself for making the decision to be sober. It will transform your life for the better.—and that’s the greatest gift you can give yourself, at the holidays or any other time of year.
If you are ready to make the commitment to sobriety but not sure where to start, contact Casa Palmera today. Our expert and caring staff members are ready to help you get started on your road to recovery.