Surviving and Enjoying the Holidays for Who isn’t Ready to Quit Drinking [Quick Guide]

With Seasonal Depression just around the corner, this can be an extremely challenging time of year for those struggling with heavy drinking. From the increased availability of alcohol during the winter to alcohol-fueled family gatherings, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months. Drinking rates skyrocket with alcohol sales peaking between December 6th and January 2nd. 1 in 3 Canadians have the winter blues, and 12%-20% of Canadians suffer from SAD according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Studies also show that 80% of all SAD diagnoses are women.

While images of the holidays show comfort and joy, the fall and winter seasons don’t always feel good to people. In reality, this time of the year is often a mix of dark and dreary days, stress, commitments, family (dysfunctional or not), financial pressure and poor eating. For many people with Seasonal Depression, alcohol is both a coping mechanism and a depressant. People turn to alcohol because they are depressed, they feel better temporarily, and then eventually feel as (or more) depressed as they did before they started drinking. Many anti-depressants also require people refrain from drinking altogether while taking them. Having information and a support system can help provide a healthier set of tools for people as the winter blues season is beginning.

As you learn more about SAD, here are some tips on how to get through the holiday season – and not just survive it but enjoy it.

  • Plan ahead. Like anything in life, when we’re prepared, we’re better equipped to handle any situation. Use a calendar to keep track of your events and plan your drinking accordingly. There may be one night that you give yourself more freedom than another; however, it’s important to keep in mind that the low-risk drinking guidelines suggest no more than 4 or less units of alcohol in a day for men2, and 3 or less for women2 on an average night. The lowest risk for all causes of mortality due to alcohol is under 121 units a week for men and 73  for women.

  • Eat first.  Having a proper meal or even a snack before a party can help curb cravings, calm nerves, and slow the absorption of alcohol.
  • Drink water. Alcohol is a diuretic and will dehydrate you. Drink water before going to a party and between drinks while you’re there. This will keep you from drinking alcohol too fast due to thirst and can help you take breaks from alcohol throughout the evening.
  • Have a mocktail or mix wine with soda. Sometimes drinking is motivated by the social comfort of holding a drink. The same comfort can be achieved from a virgin cocktail, pop, or spritzer. No one needs to know it’s non-alcoholic!
  • Serving size matters. The winter and holiday season can feel like a time of excess with seemingly endless food and alcohol. The best of intentions to drink in a controlled manner can slip away when we don’t pay attention to how much and how often a glass is getting filled. If you’re at a party, don’t let others randomly fill up your glass. Finish your drink and then make the choice on your own terms as to when you will get the next drink.
  • Choose what type of alcohol you drink.The speed at which people experience intoxication is different for beer, wine, and spirits. Both what you drink and how fast can impact just how intoxicated you get at the office party.
  • Don’t use alcohol to cope. It can be tempting to turn to drinking as a response to the many stressors of the winter and holiday season. Attempting to control ourselves when emotions are escalated is difficult. Intoxication or feeling hungover is not going to resolve those feelings and may even make you feel worse.

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Dr. Diane A. Rothon, BSc MD CM CFPC MPH, is an addiction medicine, public health and ER physician, a published researcher, and former Chief Coroner of British Columbia.  Dr. Rothon was a long-standing member of the Methadone Panel and teaching team of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C., a body responsible for the standards and physician education for the treatment of opioid addiction in B.C. for over twenty years. She is Medical Director at Alavida, and leads a team of licensed professionals who practice client-centred, compassionate, evidence-based care.