Supporting Mental Health During Your First Sober Thanksgiving

Dr. Langdon M.D.

Medically Reviewed By: Kimberly Langdon M.D.

on November 22, 2022

People recovering from drug or alcohol abuse are often also facing mental health challenges, such as depression, PTSD, or anxiety.

Over a major holiday like Thanksgiving, there can be many triggers and stress points that exacerbate these mental health issues.

You must be mindful of your mental health and take active steps to protect your mental well-being over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Below are ways your mental health may be affected by your recovery journey, aspects of Thanksgiving that may trigger unhealthy responses, and ways to support your mental health.

How Mental Health Is Affected By Addiction Recovery

According to researchers, about half of those who have substance use disorders will also experience a co-occurring mental disorder.

Common co-occurring disorders include addiction and:

  • depression
  • anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • bipolar disorder
  • attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • borderline personality disorder
  • antisocial personality disorder

A co-occurring disorder can greatly compound the issues related to addiction and addiction recovery. Even if you don’t have a mental disorder diagnosis, you may feel the symptoms of mental health issues.

When you’re in recovery, you may be especially vulnerable to impacts on your mental health because you no longer use drugs or alcohol as a coping tool.

If this is your first sober Thanksgiving, you may find it difficult to manage these symptoms without self-medicating with substances.

It’s important to think back to tools learned in recovery, get help from your support system, and come up with practical ways to improve mental health over Thanksgiving so you’re set up for success.

Supporting Your Mental Health On Thanksgiving

Your first sober Thanksgiving is a major milestone in the recovery process. It’s something that takes courage and proves genuine progress.

But often the stresses we experience on Thanksgiving — preparing, socializing, seeing family — can put pressure on a person in addiction recovery, leading to worsened mental health.

To protect your emotional wellbeing and sobriety, you’ll need to prepare for the day by addressing a few key components.

Build Support Into Your Day

First, create a structured day complete with meetings, phone calls, and other important factors along with the actual Thanksgiving celebration.

Your day might look something like this:

  • attend a peer recovery group or call a recovery mentor before your Thanksgiving meal
  • spend time with family and friends at Thanksgiving dinner
  • leave when necessary, then call a peer mentor, friend, or recovery partner

This is known as arranging “bookends” and refers to getting support from a friend or mentor before and after potentially triggering or difficult events.

In the phone call or meeting prior to the Thanksgiving meal, you might discuss your expectations, what you plan to do if a trigger arises, and any fears you have that may affect your sobriety.

In the meeting or phone call that follows the meal, you can revisit some of the events that took place, discuss healthy coping mechanisms, and other ways to prevent relapse and support mental health.

Be Ready To Leave

Many people feel obligated to be present for the entire duration of an event, especially if it involves family.

But when you’re protecting your mental health and sobriety, it’s essential that you leave when you feel you’ve had enough in terms of social interaction, difficult conversations, and triggers.

For example, if a person’s triggers involve past trauma and someone at the dinner table brings up a traumatic event, it’s perfectly acceptable for that person in recovery to make a polite exit and leave the situation.

Listen to your body, know your stress responses, and be on the lookout for triggers. If you feel the environment becomes a threat to your sobriety, have an exit plan and return home.

Keep Your Circle Small

If it’s possible, keep your Thanksgiving circle smaller this year and focus on engaging with those who lift you up and support your recovery process. 

This will make the day much more manageable and reduce risks to your mental health.

If your only option is to attend a larger gathering, try limiting your conversations to those people you feel most comfortable with, and don’t feel the need to catch up with everyone.

Thanksgiving can be overstimulating and overwhelming, so try to limit those interactions and go only as far as you feel mentally prepared for and capable of.

Practice Breathing Exercises

A breathing exercise can be used to reduce panic, depressive symptoms, and emotional discomfort.

Use a breathing exercise to regain control over your mind and body, slowing yourself down for at least a few minutes.

If something emotional or stressful happens, or you’re just starting to get overwhelmed, find a space to be alone and focus on your breathing.

Here are a few simple exercises you might try:

  • abdominal breathing: Place a hand on your belly and your chest. Deeply inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth.
  • box breathing: Inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, out for four seconds. 
  • paced breathing: Inhale for two to four seconds, exhale for four to six seconds.
  • 4-4-8 breathing: Inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for eight seconds.

It’s best to practice these in moments when you feel calm and stable so that you can bring them out when you most need them.

This will mitigate the stress response you’re feeling and invoke a relaxation response instead.

Common Triggers For People With Co-Occurring Disorders

If you have a co-occurring disorder, you may worry about two types of triggers: triggers of mental health issues and triggers of substance use.

Many of these triggers may overlap; for example, high-stress situations may induce feelings of panic and overwhelm, as well as the desire to drink.

The best way to prepare for these situations is to know your potential triggers. While these will vary from person to person, there are some common triggers you can be on the lookout for this holiday season.

Triggers of depression and addiction:

  • loneliness and isolation
  • seeing friends or family members associated with a mental health crisis or previous substance use
  • disappointment and frustration

Triggers of eating disorders and substance use:

  • over-indulgence
  • being around lots of food
  • questions about eating habits
  • comments about weight or appearance
  • difficulty eating or controlling eating

Triggers of anxiety and drug or alcohol use:

  • overwhelm
  • large groups of people
  • new situations, such as attending Thanksgiving dinner at a new person’s home or meeting a significant other’s family for the first time
  • feelings of panic and nervousness
  • social exclusion

Triggers of PTSD and substance abuse:

  • seeing a person associated with a traumatic event
  • visiting an old location or environment associated with a traumatic experience
  • physical or verbal abuse
  • arguments or social tensions

Factors such as poor eating and sleeping habits, changes in routines (especially recovery practices), and financial stress can all trigger a relapse or worsen existing mental health conditions during Thanksgiving.

Being prepared for these potential situations can equip you with the skills and tools needed to respond at the moment and avoid a relapse.

Recovering From Addiction Over Thanksgiving

If you or a loved one are recovering from addiction over the holidays and this is your first sober Thanksgiving, you may want to reach out for more support to prepare for and recover from the day.

Additional support for those spending their first Thanksgiving sober include:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and 12-step programs
  • aftercare programs, continuing care, and relapse prevention programs for those who have been through a treatment program
  • behavioral therapies, which can help to address triggers and issues around Thanksgiving, family time, and more
  • medication-assisted treatment to ease the symptoms of withdrawal and mental illness during Thanksgiving
  • group therapy

To learn more about treatment options and relapse prevention programs, contact Bedrock Recovery Center today.

  1. University Health Services: University of California, Berkeley — Breathing Exercises
  2. National Institute of Mental Health — Substance Use and Co-Occurring Mental Disorders
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse — Part 1: The Connection Between Substance Use Disorders and Mental Illness
  4. Harvard Health Publishing — Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response

Written by Bedrock Recovery Center Editorial Team

© 2024 Bedrock Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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