From making small suggestions, to focusing on your overall well-being, a psychiatrist explains how to navigate social gatherings when sober.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated from an earlier version posted in December 2021.
Whether you’re new to your journey of sobriety, or you’ve been sober for years, navigating social gatherings can be challenging. Birthdays, reunions, and holiday get-togethers can pose various triggers for those recovering from addiction.
So, how can you still enjoy these events? The coping mechanisms you have set in place to help you get through everyday life also have to be carried into social settings, says psychiatrist Dr. Keira Chism.
“When you have suffered from addiction, certain brain centers for reward are hypersensitive,” explains Dr. Chism, who works with patients managing alcohol use disorder. “If you suspect you might face a person, place, or thing that once caused you to engage in drinking, it’s important to prepare. It takes a long time to retrain your brain to not have spontaneous reactions.”
Sobriety takes continuous work, but it is possible. Below are eight tips Dr. Chism offers to help people maintain sobriety when socializing:
Be honest with yourself.
Being forewarned is being forearmed, says Dr. Chism. “Don’t deny that you might run into temptations and triggers. There might be alcohol there. You might have to fight that craving. It’s better to accept, think about, and prepare for it, than to be caught off guard.”
Suggest a change in venue or activity.
If you don’t feel comfortable with a certain setting or group of people — such as a college reunion taking place at a bar — you can opt out, notes Dr. Chism. “However, if you’re close with the friends or family making the plans, you should also feel confident to suggest going elsewhere, such as a restaurant or theater. Maybe they already know and just need a friendly reminder that you’re working diligently on your sobriety.”
Prioritize where you go and who you spend time around.
What’s worth it? You have to listen to your gut, urges. Dr. Chism. “If you are unable to suggest a change in venue, because you’re afraid to say something, or you’re worried how the night might go, you probably shouldn’t hang out with these people, in that setting, and risk your sobriety.”
People often prioritize those who they have the most important relationships with, continues Dr. Chism. If you want to spend quality holiday time with your siblings, but the behaviors of a parent may trigger you, it might be worth the extra effort to attend. In this type of situation, your coping mechanisms are your best friend; step outside if you need to and get some fresh air.
Have your “elevator pitch” ready and carry it with pride.
While you should not feel obligated to give anyone an explanation as to why you don’t want to drink or attend a certain event, says Dr. Chism, it may be helpful to prepare what you could say in advance. “Frame it in a positive light, not a shameful one. Focus on how beneficial sobriety has been for you, and how many new coping skills you’ve learned along the way.”
Starting conversations around sobriety in this manner can go a long way toward breaking the stigma against alcohol use disorder, and addiction in general, adds Dr. Chism.
Practice saying “no.”
This is the simplest way to avoid temptation. It’s not always the easiest, but it’s important to get used to it, says Dr. Chism. “‘No’ doesn’t have to be a big deal. Think of it the same way as turning down food you don’t like. You wouldn’t say yes to eating seafood if you didn’t like it, just because someone offered it, right?”
It may be helpful to practice saying no to yourself or in front of the mirror. Remember if someone pushes it, they may not be someone you want to surround yourself with.
Bring your own beverages.
This is another simple way to curb cravings and unwanted offers. If you’re worried there won’t be enough non-alcoholic beverages available, and don’t want to have an empty hand, bring your own drinks, suggests Dr. Chism.
Always keep your overall health and wellness in mind.
Wellness means more than emotional wellness, and sobriety means more than recovery. It’s a step toward better health. Think about how much the body benefits physically from not drinking, suggests Dr. Chism. “Our culture promotes alcohol consumption, but it’s generally not safe or healthy. It can actually be much more biologically toxic than most people realize.”
Also, self-care in sobriety is huge, continues Dr. Chism. If it’s an especially busy time of year, such as the holidays, try to stick to a routine and increase whatever stress reduction behaviors work for you (i.e., mindfulness, exercise, reading, drawing, etc.).
Be gentle with yourself.
How do you respect your own sobriety? Substance use disorder is a chronic illness, just like diabetes, explains Dr. Chism. You wouldn’t apologize for needing insulin all the time or avoiding food because of an allergy.
“Allow yourself to make mistakes. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to be sober,” said Dr. Chism. “If you relapse, you try again. You identify the trigger, recognize what happened, and grow from it. It’s not a race, it’s your life.”
[Main photo credit: svetikd/E+]