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Staying sober for the holidays: From mocktails to mental health, here are some tips

by Mila Jasper, Sacramento Bee | December 1, 2021 at 10:00 p.m. | Updated December 7, 2021 at 1:04 p.m.
(Stock image)


The holidays are high time for parties, parties, parties. And for adults over the age of 21, that often means alcohol.

For people trying to stay sober, or even limit their intake of alcohol, this season can be a difficult time as social drinking peaks. Benjamin Miller, a clinical psychologist who is the president of Oakland, California-based Well Being Trust, also said that the COVID-19 pandemic may amplify feelings of loneliness that could negatively impact mental health and lead to substance abuse.

"I would worry about folks that are disconnected from their loved ones, their inability to really connect and just be around the folks that they appreciate," Miller said.

If you want to avoid alcohol, the best thing you can do is prepare, according to Heidi Taugher, a licensed marriage and family therapist who has a private practice.

Planning everything from what drink you're going to bring to a party to what you'll say when someone offers you alcohol and when you're going to leave is critical, said Taugher, who is also a clinical supervisor at a residential treatment facility, where she treats patients for mental health and substance use.

"You need to stay committed to your plan that you made before your emotional brain came on the stage and is having fun and could likely hijack you," she said.

Here are several ways you can be better prepared to navigate this holiday season sober:

Bring your own drink

When you head to a holiday get together, there's no guarantee hosts will have nonalcoholic options beyond water. Keeping your hands full, preferably holding a fun drink like a sparkling water or nonalcoholic beer, is critical, Taugher said.

Or you can mix up your own mocktail to bring along. Try a simple apple cranberry spritz by mixing equal parts apple and cranberry juice and top it off with Sprite. Something as simple as a garnish on top of a drink -- a lime wedge or cranberries -- can immediately halt inquiries around what you're drinking because of the resemblance to a cocktail.

Here are some more mocktail ideas

• Nonalcoholic eggnog, from Food Network: Whisk together three large eggs and two large egg yolks with 3/4 cup sugar and a pinch of salt. Heat 3 1/2 cups whole milk and 3/4 cup heavy cream until it starts to steam. Whisk one cup of the hot milk mixture in the the egg mixture before combining both mixtures in a sauce pan. Cook over medium heat until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon; add vanilla and nutmeg, strain and refrigerate. To serve, whip 3/4 cream with an electric mixture and slowly pour in the cooled egg mixture while you whisk.

• Slow cooker apple cider, from Country Living: Combine 64 oz. apple cider with six chai tea bags, two cinnamon sticks, and one split vanilla bean in a slow cooker. Cook on low for three to four hours before removing tea bags and stirring in 1/4 lemon juice.

• Winter sangria, from Imma Eat That: In an oven preheated to 400 degrees, roast two sliced oranges, two sliced grapefruits and one cup of cranberries for 30 to 40 minutes. While the fruit bakes, boil 16 oz pomegranate juice with one cup of orange juice; pour the mixture over two chai tea bags once it boils and steep for five minutes. After you remove the tea bags, add the fruit and let it sit in the fridge overnight, or for at least two hours. To serve, fill glasses halfway with sangria and halfway with sparkling grapefruit water. Use anise stars, cinnamon sticks and fresh cranberries to garnish.

Be prepared

Before you go out, you want to have a clear sense of your goals. You should plan not only what your're going to say when people ask you if you want a drink, but what time you're going to leave and what route you're going to take home.

"You want to do this planning from a very reasoned, rational perspective," Taugher said. "What is in my best interest? Is this going to promote my sobriety, or is it going to open up opportunities for me to drink?"

While it may seem silly or unnecessary, practicing saying no to alcohol can cut down on nerves. If you've got a response prepared and practiced, you'll feel more confident when it comes time to actually deploy that response.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends three steps to a successful no

• Don't hesitate, otherwise people might try to persuade you to say yes.

• Be direct and make eye contact.

• And be succinct.

On that last point: You do not need to apologize or provide an explanation for refusing to drink. But if it helps, you can rely on excuses if you don't feel comfortable saying no point blank. For example, you can say that you're driving or you need to wake up early.

Miller said the best way to connect with loved ones over the holiday is to prioritize yourself. That may sound counterintuitive, but Miller said if we aren't bringing our best selves to the table, we aren't going to be able to connect with our family and friends anyway.

"It feels almost overly simple to say, but there is power in truth and honesty," Miller said, regarding talking about your decision to abstain from alcohol. "And one of the things that we know about addiction is the more you hide it, the worse it gets. You never know who your next advocate or ally may be ... You never know who else in your family might be experiencing the same thing."

Watch for triggers

When attending an event you know will feature alcohol, make sure you are aware of your triggers. Whether they're environmental -- like the presence of a certain type of alcohol -- or even a certain friend around whom you're more likely to drink, it's important to steer clear of triggers.

Common triggers include feelings of loneliness, family dynamics and lack of sleep, Taugher said.

"After the pandemic and being so physically isolated from one another, I think people are really anxious, like they need to get out and feel like this is going to be the best ever," Taugher said of some of the social pressures associated with this holiday season.

Staying sober requires balancing the need to stay present in the moment with the fact that most cravings for alcohol come like waves that crest before ultimately fading, Taugher said. The craving for alcohol crescendos before falling away, she said. One tool to help with staying in the moment Taugher recommends is an acupressure ring, which stimulate parts of your finger.

Attend a meeting

If you are struggling with alcohol addiction, one way to make sure you can handle any added stress or discomfort brought on by the holiday season is to be proactive. Attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings can provide an outlet to work through these challenges.

In addition to regular meetings, you can call the hotline for help at 916-454-1100. Some local chapters will also host Alkathon events, which are continuous, around-the-clock AA meetings.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also runs a national helpline offering services in English and Spanish at 1-800-662-4357. The helpline is available 24/7.

Use the buddy system

Solidarity can be a game changer when it comes to the social aspect of drinking. Bringing along a sober friend to an event where you know there will be alcohol can help you feel more confident. You can also designate a fellow sober friend to call -- if you have someone you can lean on, you can step away from a party for a moment for a quick chat if you're feeling triggered.


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