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It’s possible to manage holiday stress without smoking or drinking

The holiday season is full of celebrations—with presents, parties, and shared meals. With those traditions comes the temptation to overindulge—in spending money, drinking cocktails, or eating rich foods. It can be hard to find the right balance for anyone, especially if you’ve decided to abstain from nicotine or alcohol this year.

There are lots of reasons to say no to cigarettes or adult beverages. Despite there being a 67% drop in cigarette smoking among U.S. adults since 1965, those who do smoke find it hard to quit. Meanwhile, binge drinking is highly prevalent—a quarter of adults reported having multiple drinks in one sitting during the past month—and that has a lot of negative health consequences. 

Whether you’ve recently kicked a smoking habit, or are just trying to cut back on the booze for your health, the pressure of social situations can make it hard to stick to your resolution to go smoke- or alcohol-free. (If you think you’re dealing with a more serious addiction, it’s important to seek professional help, from your doctor or the National Helpline for SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.)

As the holiday season fraught with uncertainty approaches, you may wonder, “Is it actually possible to tackle holiday stress management without smoking or drinking?” Experts say it is.

Know the triggers for stress smoking and drinking

During a time of year when a celebratory cheers (or a shared cigarette with a friend) is commonplace, it can be tricky to be substance-free. That’s even more true if you have a challenging relationship with the family you only see during this special time of year. Situational family events, financial trouble, or toxic environments commonly triggers a return to old habits, says Alexander Lightstone Borsand, MD, a physician at Scottsdale Lifestyle Medicine in Arizona.

In other words, if Uncle Brian always tests your nerves at Christmas and stepping outside for a cigarette helped you cool off last year, it’s going to be tempting to use the same coping mechanism again. Or, if a glass of wine makes it a little easier to cope with your holiday credit card bills, it’s hard to resist opening a bottle before sitting down to balance your accounts.

Emotions many of us experience are some of the biggest causes of alcohol and cigarette use, according to Mitchell S. Rosenthal, MD, president of The Rosenthal Center for Addiction Studies in New York. “The triggers are loneliness, anxiety, and depression,” he says. “People try to comfort themselves and self-medicate with alcohol or tobacco.”

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Remember, the relief is only temporary

Alcohol and tobacco can reduce stress initially when you consume them. For a short burst of time, nicotine has been said to relax muscles, improve mood, and boost concentration. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that temporarily makes you feel calm and sedated. “They do the job for the moment, but then people get addicted to the alcohol and re-addicted to the tobacco and you have all the dangers that come with that,” Dr. Rosenthal explains. 

Drinking or smoking too much brings real risks—to your relationships, your wallet, and even your life if you engage in risky behavior when inebriated. When you’re feeling blue, alcohol and tobacco can physiologically feel like adequate solutions. However, after that temporary reprieve is over, the stressful situation often remains. 

How to deal with holiday stress without cigarettes or alcohol

Holiday stress management doesn’t have to mean smoking, drinking, or indulging in other unhealthy habits. There are many ways you can alleviate holiday stress without resorting to smoking or drinking.

  1. Log eight hours of sleep. Getting enough rest makes everything a little easier—including resisting the pull of substance use. Entering a stressful situation well-rested can make the difference between managing hard feelings and spiraling out of control.
  2. Make time for physical activity. “Exercise is very good for changing brain chemistry and having the brain produce more dopamine. That’s certainly helpful,” Dr. Rosenthal says. It also releases feel-good endorphins that can counteract unpleasant emotions.
  3. Count your blessings. Reflecting on all the good things in your life—especially the ones that arose after quitting—can help pull you out of a stressful moment.
  4. Take some deep breaths. Step into a quiet room, and take a few minutes to acknowledge your pain. Then, try a short meditation exercise. Mindful breathing can reduce stress, and reinforce your commitment to avoiding cigarettes or alcohol.
  5. Go virtual. It’s hard not being able to see loved ones in 2020. Digital platforms can offer a connection without the temptation of a stocked bar (or family smoke breaks). “I’d highly recommend a long Zoom call,” Dr. Rosenthal says. “Zoom is a very useful way of connecting with people when they can’t be physically present. It’s much better than a phone call.”
  6. Make a plan to say no. Whether that’s keeping your hands busy with a non-alcoholic mocktail, or just practicing what you’ll say when someone asks you to go out for a cig, knowing how you’ll cope in advance makes it more likely you’ll stick to your goals.
  7. Get support. It’s one of the smartest decisions you can make to avoid bad habits during the holidays. “If somebody is drinking or using tobacco as a way of dealing, they’re not likely to stop without some help,” explains Dr. Rosenthal. It can be as simple as bringing a sober buddy along to boost your resolve. For more serious addictions, it likely means joining alcoholics anonymous (AA) or a smoking cessation program for assistance and finding others who can hold you accountable. 
  8. Start a new tradition. If your usual family gatherings lead you to old habits like smoking or drinking, consider trying something different. Make plans with friends, or take a vacation instead.
  9. Stock up on prescriptions. If you take any medication that keeps you on track (like antidepressants or anti-craving drugs), be sure to prepare before the holidays—especially if you’re traveling out of town.
  10. Enlist a professional. If you find your drinking or smoking habits to be problematic, make it a priority to test the waters with a new mental health professional who has addiction expertise. Virtual appointments have made therapeutic care even more accessible this year. Depending on your situation, your physician may recommend smoking cessation drugs like Chantix, OTC nicotine replacement therapies (NRT) like Nicorette, and prescription NRTs such as Nicotrol. For people with established alcoholism, medications such as naltrexone can help to reduce the desire to drink.

If you’re struggling with an addiction, work with your doctor to develop a plan to quit. You can seek support from Alcoholics Anonymous and find resources to plan a path forward from SAMHSA.

If holidays aren’t difficult on you, consider reaching out to loved ones during the season. Being open and available for others to lean on surely makes a difference in a struggling world. Even without addiction, the woes of grief, anxiety, and loneliness—among other struggles—can make holiday stress a heavy burden to bear on our own.