8 Tips to Avoid Alcohol on Heavy Drinking Holidays

Why Do Holidays Trigger Drinking?

Holidays can be an especially challenging time to maintain our sobriety or moderation goals. There can be added stress associated with socializing with family, alcohol-centric events, hosting duties, and an (unrealistic) expectation that everything goes according to plan. Sometimes there’s also a motivation to let loose because we have extra time off work. Whatever factors created the habit of drinking on holidays, it can be hard to break the cycle. Fortunately, with support and practice, we can learn to navigate holidays without drinking and find new ways to authentically enjoy special occasions.

How to Avoid Alcohol on Drinking Holidays: 8 Tips

While many holidays have historically revolved around drinking, we hold the power to create new alcohol-free traditions that honor our goals. Let’s explore some tangible tips to remain abstinent over the holidays, and look at the many benefits of doing so.

1. Practice Saying No to Alcohol

Knowing and rehearsing what we will say when offered a drink can help us feel more confident going into a heavy-drinking holiday. Simply saying “no thank you” is often enough, however it can be helpful to prepare for the follow-up question, “why aren’t you drinking?” Remember, you don’t owe anyone a full explanation. You can decide to answer however you feel most comfortable. If it’s someone you trust, perhaps you’ll privately explain to them something along the lines of “alcohol wasn’t serving me, so now I leave it alone.” If you don’t feel ready, or it’s someone you don’t know as well, maybe you’ll opt for a response such as:

  • “I’m driving tonight”
  • “I’ve got a workout planned tomorrow morning”
  • “I’ve got an early breakfast”
  • “I’m embracing a healthier lifestyle”
  • “I’m taking medication that doesn’t mix with alcohol”

The goal is for you to feel empowered by what you say. Whatever you land on, practicing saying it in advance can make a huge difference. 

2. Bring Your Own Non-Alcoholic Beverages

Holidays are a perfect time to bring out some fun and tasty alcohol-free beverages! Rather than relying on the host to provide non-alcoholic options, we can be more prepared by taking the initiative ourselves. For some of us, having a drink in hand makes us more comfortable in social situations. It also makes it less likely that someone else will pressure us to drink alcohol. Whether our preferred drink is hot chocolate, kombucha, or non-alcoholic champagne, bringing these alcohol alternatives ourselves helps increase our chances of enjoying the event alcohol-free.

3. Have a Plan to Avoid Triggers

A trigger can be a person, place, time of day, day of the week (or month or year), emotional state, thought, or any combination of these factors that makes us more likely to drink. One strategy for dealing with triggers in early sobriety is to reduce your exposure to them. Perhaps there’s a family member who pressures you to drink. If you can avoid them, great, or maybe you’re able to set a boundary on what you will and won’t talk about with them. If it’s a specific emotion or thought that acts as a trigger, you can prepare a toolkit of coping mechanisms to use when you notice these triggers pop up (it’s super helpful to work with a therapist on this!) If certain holiday events are centered around alcohol, it’s okay not to attend. Your sobriety can always come first. It’s also important to note that you won’t necessarily have to avoid certain people, places, and things forever. As time goes on, your new coping mechanisms will become second nature, and triggers can change or subside. 

4. Know When to Leave the Party

Giving ourselves permission to leave early can be a huge relief. As we continue in our sobriety journey, we learn to trust our bodies and our intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, or if we’re just plain tired, it’s okay to leave. If others are drinking, sometimes the event can be less enjoyable the longer it progresses and the more intoxicated others become. Many of us in recovery are uncomfortable around intoxicated people, and that’s totally valid.

Freeway sign that says "Your sobriety is more important"

5. Lean on Your Support Systems

Whatever supports have helped you so far in your journey, it’s helpful to lean into them leading up to and during holidays. Checking in with an alcohol support group (or just listening) can help you realize that you’re not the only one feeling a certain way. Members and group facilitators get it – holidays can be tough, and we’re here to support one another. You can also check in with your therapist, and make a plan to address any stressors on your mind. Or maybe it’s a physical or spiritual practice that has helped you so far. Taking a break from a holiday celebration for a short walk or some breathwork can help center us. Whatever has been working for you – keep up with your practice.

6. Remember That You Don’t Have To Attend

Avoiding alcohol-centric events is an effective strategy, especially early on in our recovery. Even with the best of intentions, it can be hard to stay sober when others are drinking heavily and possibly pushing alcohol your way. Spending time at home with friends, family, or a good book and some tea can take the pressure off. Having something to look forward to other than an alcohol-centric party makes this decision easier. This could include having your favorite food or non-alcoholic drinks at home or scheduling a fun alcohol-free activity instead.

7. Host an Alcohol-Free Holiday Party

This option offers the best of both worlds if you’re someone who enjoys socializing. Letting everyone know it’s an alcohol-free event communicates expectations, and gives your guests an opportunity to bring some of their favorite non-alcoholic drinks. If someone chooses not to attend because it’s a sober event, that person may not be a supportive person to be around in your recovery anyways. These events can be a great time to foster deeper connections (that you remember!) as well as try out a variety of alcohol-free beverages and activities. 

8. Start Your Own Traditions

If your traditions have revolved around alcohol in the past, it may be time to build some new ones. There are many alcohol-free holiday traditions to try. One of my favorites is to embrace the hangover-free morning and go out for a fun breakfast the day after a big holiday. It’s all about communicating your goals around alcohol with loved ones and collaborating to find something new that you’ll all enjoy. It’s never too late to start something new!

"7 festive holiday activities that don't involve drinking: craft homemade garlands and decor, warm up in local hot springs or saunas, scope out a local theater or musical performance, host a holiday movie marathon, participate in a gift drive or food drive, reinvent a holiday tradition from childhood, host a cookie-making competition"

What to Expect When You Don’t Drink on Holidays

It’s reasonable to expect a mix of emotions when you don’t drink on a holiday, especially if it’s your first time celebrating without alcohol. You may experience feelings of nostalgia for past parties when you were drinking. You might also experience FOMO (‘fear of missing out’) if you see others drink seemingly without consequences. It’s important to remember that everyone’s relationship with alcohol is different, and we’re on this journey of recovery because ultimately the consequences of drinking outweigh the benefits for us. Remembering your “why” can help move past this – or maybe you’ve got a pros and cons list written down somewhere you can reference. 

Another helpful strategy for moving past these feelings is to “play the tape forward.” This means visualizing the entire event, including the next morning, and see that that one drink may not lead to a more enjoyable holiday for you. You may end up drinking more than you intend to, and feel the consequences the next morning. 

What Are the Benefits of Alcohol-Free Holidays?

Spending the holidays sober can help usher in a new set of traditions for you and your loved ones. New memories will be made – and remembered! We no longer will need to go back to work after a holiday feeling like we need another day (or several) off to recover from drinking. We’ll reclaim hours of our lives that were spent sleeping off a hangover, and get to spend them doing whatever self-care practices make us happy. Holidays can often be nostalgic, and without the influence of alcohol we get to rediscover what we loved about the holiday as a child. Lastly, maybe by us leading by example, a loved one may be inspired to reconsider their relationship to alcohol as well.

Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

About the Author

Connor O'ReillyConnor O'Reilly is an engineer turned recovery coach. He focuses on identifying clients’ strengths, helping them see what’s working and eliminating what isn’t. He's passionate about wellness & loves helping others make lifestyle changes.