The holidays are supposed to be a time of celebration and comfort; but more often than not, they stir up difficult memories and remind us what we’re lacking: companionship, love, money, family, security. The list goes on and on.
The holidays are supposed to be a time of celebration and comfort; but more often than not, they stir up difficult memories and remind us what we’re lacking: companionship, love, money, family, security. The list goes on and on. For a recovering addict, the season-to-be-jolly can be incredibly tense and grueling. Once able to seek distraction through drugs or alcohol, the addict must now face the holidays sober. Sometimes it feels as if the entire world is trying to entice you to relapse. Everyone else is celebrating – why can’t you?
You are absolutely entitled to celebrate in the spirit of the season, but you will need to learn how to do so safely in a way that makes you feel at ease and even excited about it. As a certified Grief Recovery Specialist®, I’ve put together a guide that helps my clients create their own action plan. My desire is to empower recovering addicts to enjoy their lives while continuing their sobriety.
Dopamine is key to overcoming the holiday horrors; it’s the chemical in the brain that creates the sensation of happiness. You may already know that drugs and alcohol are major triggers of dopamine. The use of some drugs can raise the dopamine level in your brain up to ten times what it’s capable of producing on its own. Fortunately, dopamine production can be stimulated naturally without the use of dangerous drugs or overeating.
Raising your dopamine level naturally, particularly during the holidays, is essential for elevating your mood. An elevated mood will boost your self-confidence and create the willpower to stay sober. Self-care is essential, but you don’t have to wait until the holidays are here. Start these dopamine-inducing practices now to guarantee you’ll be at your best by the time the holidays roll around:
- Exercise 20-30 minutes daily. This is how long it takes for the dopamine to be triggered. Aim to keep the heart rate elevated for this period of time. Try to exercise outdoors because sunlight exposure can also raise dopamine levels.
- Eliminate sugar, fat and cholesterol. All of these can cause a drop in dopamine levels.
- Consume foods high in dopamine. Foods such as ripe bananas, fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes contain chemicals closely related to dopamine.
- Take vitamins C and E daily. These vitamins can contribute to raising dopamine levels in your body.
- Incorporate magnesium into your diet. Over half the population is deficient in this relaxation mineral. If you eat a diet heavy in processed foods, you probably experience a magnesium deficiency. Magnesium taken in the evening helps you get a full night’s rest. Magnesium glycinate and magnesium amino acid chelate are the best types of magnesium for mental relaxation.
- Get a full night’s sleep. Dopamine has been tied to feelings of wakefulness, so it is important to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night. An epsom salt bath will also have a calming effect.
- Get a massage on a regular basis. Stress triggers high cortisol levels, which wreak havoc on your body. Cortisol levels decrease over 30% after massage therapy, while dopamine and serotonin levels increase by nearly 30%.
- Listen to music. When you listen to music you really enjoy, your brain releases dopamine as a response. Even the anticipation of hearing your favorite tunes can increase dopamine levels.
- Commit to a daily practice of meditation. Meditation alters concentrations of various neurotransmitters, including dopamine. Mindfulness meditation stimulates areas of the brain involved in emotional regulation and control of attention. The increased activities in these regions amplify the release of dopamine. Try a smartphone app like Headspace to help you get started.
- Reach a short- or long-term goal. Dopamine is all about pleasure. When you reach a personal goal, you often feel satisfied and happy. A goal doesn’t have to be something big; in fact, you can think of daily activities as goals. Make sure to reward yourself with something healthy once your goal has been achieved.
Self-care isn’t just about raising your natural dopamine levels; it’s also about mentally creating a safe space for yourself. Decide which of the following you feel comfortable trying and give yourself permission to continue practicing them:
- Opt out when necessary. Decide which events you can handle. Don’t let other people make you feel obligated to attend an event that makes you anxious. The last thing you need is additional stress from someone who doesn’t understand your recovery process.
- Don’t judge others or yourself. This is your personal journey. Friends and family may try to rally you to do things you just can’t do. Their intentions are well-meaning, but they may not be what you need as you ride a rollercoaster of emotions. Maintain healthy boundaries and politely explain that you are not in a place to participate.
- Be gentle with yourself. Treat yourself as if you’re a patient in intensive care – you need time and rest to build your strength. Give yourself permission to take your recovery one step at a time.
- Create new experiences or rituals. You may find that the anticipation of the holidays is actually worse than the holidays themselves. Don’t focus on the potential pain that the holidays may bring; instead, create new and comforting activities that give you something to look forward to, and make sure to include people who are supportive and understanding of where you are in your recovery process.
- Lean on your support network. Reach out to others in recovery. Remember, you are responsible for your own sobriety. It can be helpful to get support from your recovery community. Don’t be shy about asking for help.
Recovery is a marathon that never ends, and pacing yourself is crucial. Once you’ve made a habit of these practices, you’ll find you can cope not only with the holidays, but also with the months thereafter. Know that you do have the power to make the changes you need to live a sober, happy life, every day of the year!
Kristi Hugstad’s mission is to reach out to those wrestling with grief and addiction. She offers them a safe place to address and ultimately move through their pain and fears to a new perspective and a new life. As a thought leader on grief, she is an author, speaker, certified Grief Recovery Specialist®, and host of The Grief Girl radio show and podcast. www.thegriefgirl.com