With the holidays come family traditions, decadent treats and, of course, holiday parties. And where there are holiday parties, there is usually a steady flow of alcohol. During this time of year, drinking becomes a socially acceptable, if not expected, part of the celebrations. Not surprisingly, both alcohol sales and drunk driving accidents skyrocket.
In these next few weeks, a lot of people will drink who would ordinarily abstain, and more serious problems arise for people who have spent the rest of the year struggling to keep their drinking under control. Here are five signs alcohol is detracting from the fun rather than making your holiday merry and bright:
When alcohol stops being a fun way to mingle at the holiday party and becomes the focus of every special occasion or the only way you can cope with the stress of the season, it’s time to reassess the role alcohol is playing in your holiday celebrations. Although alcohol may seem to relax you or help you forget your problems, the effects are short-lived. As a depressant, alcohol use actually amplifies stress in the long term.
Risk-taking in all its forms increases around the holidays. There is a 25 percent increase in alcohol-related traffic incidents, and emergency rooms nationwide report higher numbers of alcohol-related accidents and injuries. Tasks as simple as decorating the home for the holidays can be dangerous when your judgment, balance and coordination are alcohol-impaired. Sometimes people drink a little too much at the office holiday party and end up behaving in a way that could harm their reputation at work. The holidays will not be merry if you can’t even remember what you said to make your boss so angry with you.
For every joyful holiday memory, many families have suffered through a family gathering spoiled by an intoxicated relative lashing out or making a scene. Under the influence of alcohol, people may become argumentative or aggressive, or anxious or withdrawn – that is, if they show up at all. Others stay home nursing a hangover or lose track of time because of their alcohol use.
Rather than keep up the lies or face disappointed loved ones and the subsequent feelings of guilt and shame, they may begin to withdraw. They spend their time drinking, thinking about alcohol or recovering from its effects, forsaking the activities and people they care about most.
Problem drinkers may justify their habit as “normal” around the holidays because non-drinkers and occasional drinkers are also overdoing it. Their alcohol problem may go unnoticed by friends and family because alcohol use, especially binge drinking, is a common part of holiday festivities. Many alcoholics will promise to cut back come the first of the year – a date that all too often comes and goes without meaningful change.
Occasional, moderate drinking doesn’t typically result in negative consequences. But if a loved one drives under the influence, blacks out, loses their job, or has relationship issues, legal troubles, or alcohol-related health problems such as liver disease, their alcohol use has likely crossed the line into addiction. Once addiction sets in, the alcoholic cannot and will not stop even though their drinking is costing them everything.
When that glass of spiked eggnog or the New Year’s champagne toast begins detracting from the fun rather than contributing to it, it may be time to honestly assess your alcohol use. It is not uncommon for the alcoholic to have every symptom of addiction without realizing it. This is where family and friends come in – especially around the holidays, keep an eye out for the warning signs of alcoholism and get help now so this and future holidays can be joyful again.
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 Malibu drug rehab Promises, The Ranch in Tennessee, The Recovery Place drug rehab in Florida, and Texas rehabs Right Step and Spirit Lodge.
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Last reviewed: 20 Nov 2012