Tis the season to be Jolly?

For those who struggle with substance abuse problems, This time of year can be particularly trying. The holidays can bring out feelings of loneliness, disconnection and loss due to separation from family or other support persons. Many who are battling substance abuse report that remaining sober is much more difficult during Winter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Increased feelings of sadness, guilt, loss, isolation and hopelessness during these times is not uncommon. Miserable or unhappy people will seek altered mental states to numb the pain. It’s unfortunate, but it makes sense.

Looking at the research

Johann Hari’s book titled, “Chasing The Scream” describes his research on the history of addiction including, “The War On Drugs.” One of the conclusions he comes to in the text is that as a culture, we have a story about how addiction works, and it’s a good one. It says that some substances are so chemically powerful that if you use them enough, they will hijack your brain. They will change your neurochemistry. They will give you a brain disease. Addiction, then is the result of repeated exposure to certain very powerful chemicals. This model of addiction has been proven through animal experiments. Put a rat alone in a cage and give it unlimited quantities of cocaine, and nine times out to ten, it will use so much and so compulsively that it will kill itself.

However, according to a second researcher who reviewed the first researcher’s set up with the empty cage, rat and dispenser, decided that the result of the research study were invalid in comparison to human addiction because human beings don’t live in isolated cages. He decided to enrich the cage and found that the rat did not become addicted or use the cocaine until death. For me, this result fits within an alternative definition of addiction. Instead of simply exposure to a chemical substance, “adaptation to environment” becomes a large part of the root cause of the dependency. For example: isolation, disconnection, lack of meaning, and lack of support can all contribute to substance abuse.


Along with the adaptations described above, I believe there is also conditioning that occurs when one repeatedly engages in a behavior in the same way over and over and in the same environment. For example, if you find yourself kicked back in your easy chair watching TV after work everyday and drinking alcohol, more than likely you have conditioned your brain to expect a pleasurable experience at around the same time, in the same way. If you then attempt to refrain from drinking or using substances at this time and in this environment, you are likely experience an increase in salivation and cravings for the substance. Another more common example is observed when bottle-fed infants recognize it’s time for their next meal when they hear the microwave bell sounding. It’s a classic Pavlov’s dogs scenario.

Finally, it appears that our adaptation to our environment during the holidays and our previous environmental conditioning have a tremendous impact on our ability to navigate the holidays successfully and soberly. If we are able to approach the struggle of substance abuse keeping in mind the second rat in the aforementioned study, we would be best advised to enrich our environment to the best of our ability by increasing our social network and enriching our daily interactions with those who we love and cherish.

So here’s some ideas to mix things up and not the Holidays pull you down:

  • Call old friends
  • Write a letter to a loved one
  • Attend a religious service
  • Attend a support group or therapy group
  • Change up your diet and try something new
  • Taking a hot baths or shower to relax
  • Changing the smell of your home
  • Decorating with bright and vibrant colors
  • Change up the routine
  • Rearrange the furniture in your home

Remember that holiday commercials of wonderful family gatherings are rarely a reality, but that doesn’t mean being around your family and friends can’t be a good, healthy, and enriching experience even if there is the occasional conflict.

Remember that making small changes in your environment will decrease the likelihood that your brain will be triggered to want or crave a pleasurable chemical.

Don’t forget, you are not alone!

If you find that you are unusually lonely or depressed over the holidays, reach out to Thriveworks Counseling in Bastrop of North Austin for help. We would love to be a part of helping you thrive during the holidays.
You can thrive, we can help.