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Alcohol and Health

How To Have a Merry, Sober, and Safe Holiday Season

January 11, 2024
23 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
January 11, 2024
23 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
January 11, 2024
23 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
January 11, 2024
23 min read
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Reframe Content Team
January 11, 2024
23 min read

As the holiday season approaches, many of us look forward to the festivities and traditions that bring joy and warmth to the colder months. But let's face it: navigating the holiday cheer without alcohol can be a challenge.

However with a bit of planning and science-backed knowledge, we can make this year different. Welcome to the holiday season, where the lights are twinkling, the laughter is loud, and the drinks are ... optional!

Part 1. The Holiday Hot Zone: Why So Much Booze?

First things first — why is this a challenge in the first place? There are a few reasons. 

1: It’s (Supposed To Be) the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

The holiday season, often hailed as the most wonderful time of the year, can paradoxically also be a period of heightened stress and emotional turbulence. Our routines are disrupted, social pressures increase, and emotional stressors can be at an all-time high. As a result, the allure of alcohol as a quick fix to find joy and relief becomes more pronounced. 

Alcohol as a “Stress Buster”: A Sneaky Illusion

From the need to find the perfect gifts to messy family dynamics and juggling social commitments, holidays can feel overwhelming. In this whirlwind, alcohol is frequently marketed as a stress-reliever — a way to unwind and escape the season’s pressures.

When we drink, alcohol temporarily slows down our brain and nervous system, creating a short-lived illusion of relaxation. However, this initial relief is followed by a rebound effect, during which stress and anxiety can actually increase as our body processes the alcohol.

In spite of the clear biochemical evidence to the contrary, the idea that alcohol can relieve stress is a common myth. The initial relaxing effects of alcohol can be enticing, making it seem like a viable solution to holiday anxiety — until the illusion fades and the stress comes back stronger than ever.

Filling the Void

The holidays can also bring on loneliness and highlight emotional voids, and alcohol can seem like a trusty companion or a means to fill these emotional gaps.

  • A shortcut to “joy.” Biologically, our brains love patterns, a love that is reinforced by the reward system. Alcohol often becomes a shortcut to the brain's reward center that releases “happy” neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Unfortunately, our brains can start to associate drinking with “guaranteed” joy, leading to cravings and discomfort when we veer off our usual course.
  • Emotional crutches. For some, alcohol can become a crutch during the holidays, seemingly filling the void left by loneliness, sadness, or unmet expectations. It's used to temporarily boost happiness or create a sense of belonging that masks underlying depression and isolation.
  • The cycle of dependency. Relying on alcohol to fill emotional voids can create a cycle of dependency. What starts as a balm to a hard day or a means to cope with loneliness can evolve into a habit, with alcohol becoming the go-to solution for any emotional snag.

2: The Tradition Trap: “This Is What We Always Do”

When we think of the holidays, our minds often conjure up images of clinking glasses and toasts around a lavishly set table. But let's take a moment to understand this "tradition trap" and how cultural norms shape our drinking habits during the festive season.

  • The roots of rituals. Many holiday traditions have deep historical roots, with alcohol often playing a central role. Whether it's mulled wine during Christmas, champagne toasts on New Year's Eve, or any number of culture-specific holiday spirits, these customs have been passed down through generations and can get mixed up with an expectation of drinking.
  • Going on autopilot. The pressure to drink during the holidays can lead to automatic behavior: we find ourselves reaching for a drink simply because that's just what we do during the holidays.
  • The social factor. Cultural traditions also shape how we socialize. The holidays are a time of gathering often lubricated by drinks, which are seen as a way to loosen up, connect, and celebrate. Unfortunately, this trend makes the choice to abstain feel awkward or out of place.

3: Holiday Liquor: Marketing Stokes the Fire

When it comes to selling seasonal alcohol, nothing beats putting it in the hands of attractive models or into the sleigh of an adorable cartoon reindeer. Everywhere we look there are pictures of deceptively picture-perfect (and, most likely, sober) folks enjoying “cozy” eggnog and “festive” champagne. Needless to say, this can quickly derail our plans for a sober holiday season. Let’s take a deeper look at the reasons behind this potential hurdle in our alcohol journey.

The Glitz and Glam of Holiday Liquor

As the holiday season approaches, so does an onslaught of marketing aimed at making alcohol the centerpiece of all our celebrations. Entire marketing teams are behind it, and you better believe they know what they’re doing!

  • Selling nostalgia. Many holiday alcohol ads are steeped in nostalgia, harking back to "the good old days" of holiday celebrations. They pull on the heartstrings by evoking memories and suggesting that alcohol was and still is a key ingredient to holiday cheer.
  • The role of expectation. The sheer volume of alcohol advertising during the holidays can make sobriety feel like an uphill battle. Everywhere we turn — billboards, TV, social media, even local pharmacy displays — we’re faced with messages that normalize and encourage drinking.
  • The "limited-time only" tactic. Holiday marketing often includes special "limited-time" or "seasonal" alcoholic beverages — a trick that creates a sense of urgency to tempt consumers to indulge “before it’s too late.” The message is clear: special time of year should be celebrated with special drinks.

Part 2. Reframing the Holiday Spirit With Sober Strategies

So how do we tackle this? It's all about reframing — get it? — our mindset. Instead of seeing alcohol as the main event, we arrange our lives in a way that leaves it on the sidelines. Let's break down some specific strategies to avoid falling into the holiday alcohol trap by planning ahead, creating new traditions, making time for self-care, engaging our creativity, and focusing on the true spirit of the holidays!

1: Plan Ahead

Planning ahead is crucial for making it through the holiday season, especially if you're aiming to enjoy it sober. Here are several strategies and ideas that can make all the difference.

  • Know your triggers. Identify situations, emotions, or people that might encourage you to drink. Write these down and think about how you will handle them. For example, if large parties tempt you to drink, plan to attend smaller gatherings.
  • Bring your own (non-alcoholic) beverages. Always have a non-alcoholic drink in hand or within reach. Bring your own festive non-alcoholic beverages to parties. This not only provides you with a safe option but might also encourage others to try something new! Another option? Before attending any gathering, arm yourself with a delicious mocktail recipe. 
  • Plan for no-booze toasts. If toasting is a big part of your holiday tradition, plan what you’ll have for a non-alcoholic toast. Whether it's sparkling water, a mocktail, or even a warm cider, raising your glass doesn't have to derail your plans to stay sober!
  • Create a support SOS signal. Develop a discrete signal with a trusted friend or family member who will be at events with you. Maybe it’s a text, a word, or a gesture — something that will be under-the-radar yet distinct. This signal can be your SOS, prompting them to provide immediate support or distraction.
  • Practice your responses ahead of time. Anticipate the scenarios where you might be offered a drink, and have a plan. Maybe it's a polite "No, thank you," or perhaps it's having a fancy mocktail in hand to reduce temptation. Also, people may ask why you're not drinking, so think about and practice your responses until you're comfortable and confident in your replies. Whether you choose to be open about your journey or keep it private, being prepared makes it easier. 
  • Picture your future success. Spend time visualizing yourself enjoying the holidays sober. Imagine the events, the people, and how good you'll feel each morning. This positive mental rehearsal can be a powerful motivator!
  • Have an exit strategy in place. If things become overwhelming, it's okay to leave. Have a plan for a polite exit if a situation becomes too much. Knowing you have an out can provide peace of mind.

2: Start New Traditions 

Who says traditions can't evolve? Introduce new sober activities that might become the highlight of your holiday season. Science shows us that engaging in meaningful tasks releases those same happy chemicals — without the hangover! Here are some unique options to inspire your holiday celebrations:

  • Explore your own winter wonderland. Organize a holiday-themed scavenger hunt through a local park or neighborhood. Each person or team could have a list of holiday items to find, like a red ornament, a Santa hat, or a house with blue lights. Finish with a gathering at a cozy café for hot chocolate and sharing pictures of your finds.
  • A taste of foreign celebrations. Pick a country and dive into its holiday traditions through food and activities. For example, host a “French Noël” night, cooking traditional dishes, learning a few French Christmas carols, and sharing stories about how holidays are celebrated in France. Or dive into a season of Top Chef from a different country to get inspired!
  • Holiday movie marathon with a twist. Instead of just watching holiday classics, make it interactive. Create bingo cards with common movie tropes (like "unexpected gift" or "snowball fight") and play along while sipping alcohol-free hot apple cider.
  • A virtual holiday. With technology, your friend living in Germany is just a Zoom call away. Organize a virtual party where friends or family members share a holiday tradition from different parts of the world. 

3: Make Time for Self-Care

The holiday season can be a whirlwind of activities and emotions, so making time for self-care is key. Here are some self-care practices to consider incorporating into your routine.

  • Mindful morning practice. Begin each day of the holiday season with a mindfulness practice. This could be a short meditation, a walk at sunrise, or journaling. Focus on setting a positive, calm intention for the day ahead. When the holiday buzz becomes overwhelming, grounding techniques can reduce stress and increase your resilience to triggers. And don’t stop when the holidays end — take this practice with you to kick off the year and keep the momentum going!
  • Holiday yoga. Attend a holiday-themed yoga class or create your own series at home. Incorporate poses that reflect the season's joy and stillness. 
  • Get moving — ideally, outdoors. Physical activity is a fantastic way to boost mood and stay healthy during the holidays. Whether it's a family football game or a serene walk, moving your body keeps the spirits high and the cravings low.
  • Start a digital detox. Start this year by taking a break from technology. It might feel weird at first, but give it a go and see what happens! Turn off all electronics and enjoy the simplicity of reading a book by the fireplace, penning letters to friends and family, or simply sitting and reflecting on the year.
  • Laughter is therapy! Plan a comedy night to watch your favorite funny movies, attend a stand-up comedy show, or simply share jokes with friends. Laughter is a powerful stress buster and mood booster!
  • Warm beverage ritual. Replace the eggnog with herbal tea, hot cocoa, or spiced apple cider, taking this time to reflect, relax, and savor the warmth and flavors.

4: Get Creative

The holidays are the perfect time to tap into your creative side and add a personal touch to the celebrations. Creativity not only brings joy but also provides a healthy outlet for expressing emotions and reducing stress. Here are some fun options to get your creativity flowing.

  • Homemade is best. Create your own holiday cards using watercolor, stamping, or collage. Or choose a theme for your holiday and create decorations that match it. Whether it's a winter wonderland, vintage nostalgia, or a futuristic holiday, crafting your own decorations makes your space uniquely yours.
  • Create a holiday playlist. Create the ultimate holiday playlist. Go beyond the classics and include different genres or cultural songs. Share your playlist with friends and family, or host a listening party where everyone shares their favorite holiday tunes.
  • Holiday Baking Championship in your own kitchen. If you’re a fan of cooking shows (Beat Bobby Flay and the Holiday Baking Championship are great ones), embrace your inner chef and host a cooking challenge with friends or family at your home. Each person can create a dish inspired by a holiday movie or song and give each one a creative name.
  • Creative writing. Write a short story, poem, or play centered around the holiday season. Let your imagination run wild — maybe even write a holiday romance or mystery!
  • Artisanal soap making. Create homemade soaps with holiday-themed shapes, colors, and scents. Use ingredients like oatmeal, honey, or essential oils to make each batch special. 

5: Nurture the True Spirit of the Holidays

The true spirit of the holidays isn't found in the bustling stores or even the twinkling lights; it's in the warmth of connection and the joy of giving. Here are several ways to deepen your holiday experience through meaningful engagement.

  • Host a “give-back” party. Instead of a traditional holiday party, host a gathering where guests engage in a charitable activity together — assembling care packages for the homeless, writing letters to soldiers overseas, or crafting blankets for shelter animals. 
  • Story hour. Organize a story-sharing “campfire” evening where friends and family come together to share their most memorable holiday stories. You can also create a holiday memory book that everyone in the family can contribute to for years to come!
  • Neighborhood caroling. Revive the old tradition of caroling with a twist. Gather a group of friends or neighbors to sing holiday songs at local senior centers, hospitals, or even around the neighborhood. 
  • Nature conservation activity. Organize or participate in a conservation activity, like planting trees or a winter beach clean-up.
  • Gratitude journal. Keep a holiday journal where you jot down daily moments of gratitude. When you're feeling tempted, read through it to remind yourself of the good times without alcohol and shift your focus from what you're “missing out” on to the present moment with all of its joys.

Wrapping Up (No Pun Intended)

As we wrap up this guide, remember that the holiday season is about warmth, connection, and joy. Whether you're sipping on a gingerbread mocktail or laughing over a game of charades, it's the memories and the company that count. Here at Reframe, we believe in your ability to navigate this season with grace and humor. And right now is a great time to participate in our Dry(ish) January challenge — whether your goal is to go alcohol-free or cut back for a month, we promise to make it a fun and enlightening experience! So here's to a sober and utterly delightful holiday season — may your days be merry, bright, and hangover-free!

Summary FAQs

1. Can I really enjoy the holidays without alcohol?

Absolutely! The holidays are about connection and celebration, which can be fully enjoyed without alcohol. The brain's natural feel-good chemicals can be stimulated by joyous activities and company, ensuring a merry time without the need for a drink.

2. What are some good non-alcoholic alternatives to traditional holiday drinks?

There are plenty of festive mocktails to try! From cranberry spritzers to ginger mules, there are plenty of creative ideas for how to replace traditional alcoholic beverages with delicious, non-alcoholic versions that everyone can enjoy.

3. How do I deal with the pressure to drink during holiday gatherings?

Communicate your choice to stay sober openly and honestly with friends and family. Also, having a tasty non-alcoholic drink in hand can make social situations more comfortable. 

4. What are some new sober holiday traditions I can start?

Consider movie marathons, winter hikes, or game nights as alternatives. Consider new traditions that focus on connection and joy, rather than alcohol.

5. How can I support a loved one who's choosing to stay sober this holiday?

Offer non-alcoholic beverage options, respect their decision, and provide a supportive environment. Encourage and participate in alcohol-free activities to help them feel included and appreciated.

6. Why is it important to be mindful of cultural traditions involving alcohol?

Being aware of the "tradition trap" helps us understand the pressure to drink and allows us to consciously decide what's best for our well-being. Our blog discusses how to honor cultural traditions while making health-conscious choices.

7. How can I celebrate my sobriety during the holidays?

Acknowledge each event you navigate soberly as a victory. Celebrate these moments by treating yourself or simply reflecting on your strength and resilience. 

Ready To Change Your Relationship With Alcohol in the New Year? Reframe Can Help!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people worldwide drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol.

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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