The last week of December typically represents a special time of year for most Americans -- that 7 day sprint from Christmas to New Year can be a magical time for children and a special time for families to come together.
Yet statistically, that holiday week is also the time when more Americans over-indulge in alcoholic excess than any other times of the year.
Why? Well, good cheer and celebration leads many Americans to “drink and be merry”; from office Christmas parties, to family gatherings to New Years’ Eve bashes -- drinking is on the menu for most adults around the holiday season.
Indeed, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the $49 billion distilled-spirits industry makes more than 25% of its profits from Thanksgiving to the New Year.
But in addition to celebratory drinking, every holiday season people have to deal with the increased pressures and stress that the holidays place upon most of us. Whether we’re traveling to be with family or doing our last-minute gift buying, most people feel under pressure during the holidays.
Celebration. Family Stress. Shopping Stress. Then there’s also the notion of the “holiday blues”; this is the belief held by many mental health professionals (although not necessarily borne out by the statistics) that depression rates and suicides rise during the holidays because holiday cheer only amplifies loneliness and hopelessness in people who are predisposed towards depression; that can include people who have a history of depression, who have lost loved ones or who have high expectations of renewed happiness during the holiday season, only to be disappointed.
Others think the increase in anxiety and gloominess is caused by the unavoidable stress, exhaustion, and frustration that come with preparing for the holidays.
In addition, there is also Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression that is closely related to the winter season and, therefore, seems to increase in frequency around the holidays.
Thus if there is an uptick in depression and anxiety over the holidays, we know that depression and anxiety significantly increase a person’s likelihood to drink or otherwise self-medicate.
In my experience as Clinical Director of the Dunes, one of the country’s foremost rehabs located in the heart of the Hamptons, I’ve seen a post-holiday jump in our admissions as people who over-indulged over the holidays come in looking for help in January.
At the Dunes, whenever we work with clients, we embrace the notion that the problem lay not in the substance but within the person. That is to say, if a person is feeling out of sorts or not in a very good place, they are much more inclined to not only indulge—but over-indulge.
This over-indulgence can take on various expressions -- not just alcohol and not just drugs; a person can over-indulge in shopping, exercise, work, sex, gambling…almost anything.
Thus, at the Dunes, the focus is on helping people to get back to a mentally, emotionally and psychologically balanced way of living; that means teaching practical coping skills to manage stress (i.e. we teach meditation techniques; emotional regulation, etc.); developing healthy outlets and hobbies; making sure that a person is taking care of their dietary and sleep needs—two often very overlooked components when people are looking at why their lives might be out of balance and why they might be over indulging in drugs and alcohol.
It also means addressing any underlying or tell-tale mental health issues like depression and anxiety which may be the core issue that is leading to the holiday debauchery. That’s why at the Dunes we believe in treating the underlying issues and not just focusing on the overt manifestation (drinking and/or drugging) that those unresolved issues lead to.
So what can you do to not fall victim to the dreaded holiday over-indulgence syndrome?
Try some of these tips that we work on at the Dunes:
1. Learn how to identify and manage your stress. When you begin to feel yourself getting overwhelmed or stressed, learn how to push the “pause” button as you then take 10 deep diaphragmatic breaths (as you breathe in you expand your diaphragm/belly area; as you breathe out you say the word “relax” to yourself).
You’ll be amazed how this simple method reduces the stress by lowering the cortisol levels in your system. At the Dunes, we practice breathing meditation both in the morning and in the evening.
2. Don’t over-schedule your time. We all try to juggle and multi-task, but usually that not only makes us less efficient in doing any one thing, but it also raises the stress level. So write a schedule in the morning for your day that is a REALISTIC one of what you can reasonable accomplish that day.
If you can’t complete everything on your list, carry it over to the following day.
The key is to give yourself permission to do all that you can but no more than that.
3. Schedule quality down-time or “me-time” every single day. This can include taking a mindfulness walk (with NO multi-tasking allowed!); or just sitting quietly in a peaceful area and just…daydreaming. Quality time can include reading a book, exercising, meditating or listening to music -- but NO computer viewing or sensory overload! At the Dunes, we try and take at least one nature walk a day.
4. Don’t let yourself be so hurried and harried that you forget to eat regularly. Remember to eat small healthy meals five times a day.
The worst thing to do for your metabolism is to be under holiday stress and then forget to eat for long stretches. Your body then slows down its metabolism in order to store calories because it thinks you are entering a stress or fasting period.
At the Dunes, the clients eat healthy meals at the same time every day.
5. Get at least 8 hours of sleep a night and use good “sleep hygiene”. If you don’t get enough sleep, the stress hormone cortisol is released; use good “sleep hygiene”: avoid stimulants and eating too close to bedtime; establish a regular bedtime routine and try to maintain the same bedtime; exercise earlier in the day; no electronics in the bedroom. At the Dunes, teach and encourage excellent “sleep hygiene”.
Here is a simplified way to remember some of the above suggestions: HALT! In the addiction treatment world, we emphasize that clients learn this helpful acronym: Never let yourselves become too HALT (too Hungry, too Angry, too Lonely, too Tired).
It’s also very wise advice for non-addicts during the holiday season as well.
Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, Ph.D., LCSW is an addictions specialist and Clinical Director of the Dunes, a holistic mind-body rehab center in Easthampton, N.Y. He is also a clinical professor at Stony Brook University's Health Sciences Center where he teaches graduate level course-work on the treatment of addiction. He is a licensed NY State psychotherapist and a clinical consultant for LICADD (Long Island Council for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence) as well as being Adjunct Faculty at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in California. He is the author of "How Plato and Pythagoras Can Save Your Life" (Conari Press, 2011).