There is little evidence that depression or suicide rates rise during the holidays, but the season is certainly known for its excesses. Although just as many people (if not more) need help for drug and alcohol addiction, fewer people reach out for treatment in the last couple months of the year. Addicts generally object to being away from home during family gatherings at Thanksgiving or Christmas, but for some families, seeking help during the holidays could be the greatest gift you give this year. Here are a few ironies that keep addicts sick over the holidays:
Even in the face of serious consequences, some addicts put off getting help so that they can get through the holiday festivities without disappearing off to rehab. Some party even harder around the holidays, flying under the radar of loved ones because it is socially acceptable to overdo the celebrating. Unfortunately, the stress of the season can exacerbate substance abuse, leaving an addict spiraling out of control.
The day before Thanksgiving, described in the media as Black Wednesday, is one of the biggest partying nights of the year, with the National Health Institute estimating that 10.8 million underage drinkers binge that day. According to Nielsen reports, alcohol consumption increases dramatically in December and in the week leading up to the New Year. All of this alcohol fuels as much as a 25 percent increase in alcohol-related traffic incidents, prompting President Barack Obama to declare December National Impaired Driving Prevention Month.
Despite the increase in drug use and the problems that increased consumption can bring, it is common for people to delay seeking addiction treatment during the holidays. Yet drug and alcohol problems rarely resolve themselves. In fact, admissions to rehab facilities often increase significantly following the New Year. Similarly, psychiatric visits tend to dip in the weeks before Christmas and then rise afterward, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
A season that’s supposed to be filled with peace and joy, family conflicts, unmet expectations, exhaustion and financial pressures can make the holidays extremely stressful. A national survey by the American Psychological Association found that nearly half of American women experience heightened stress during the holidays, which they coped with by overeating (41 percent), drinking alcohol (28 percent) or engaging in other unhealthy behaviors.
Family traditions are the stuff holidays are made of, but for some, being around family triggers painful memories and feelings. For those who lost a loved one or don’t have close friends or family nearby, the holidays can be a lonely time, especially as they watch everyone else celebrating merrily. Without a social support network in place, people may be at increased risk of depression, substance abuse and other problems.
Reflecting on memories from past holidays is a favorite part of family get-togethers, but for those whose past has been marked by drug abuse or other issues, this time of year can be relapse-triggering. Feelings of joy can be equally problematic as sadness, guilt or fear in generating powerful cravings for the escape once provided by drugs or alcohol.
Resolving to quit using drugs or alcohol come January 1st is, in many cases, an excuse to go on one (or more) final benders before committing to treatment, often at great cost to self and others. While resolutions are effective for some, few are able to follow through over time. For someone who is serious about changing their life, the time to start is today, not on New Year’s or any other holiday.
The holiday season is full of ironies. Are any of these enabling you to continue abusing drugs or alcohol?
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. Dr. Sack served as a senior clinical scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) where his research interests included affective disorders, seasonal and circadian rhythms, and neuroendocrinology. He currently serves as CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment centers that includes Promises rehab centers in California, The Ranch in Tennessee, The Recovery Place rehab in Florida, and Right Step and Spirit Lodge in Texas.
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Last reviewed: 4 Nov 2012