Oops, I Ate the Whole Pie (and Other Tales of Holiday Addiction)

12/05/2013 11:52 am ET | Updated Feb 04, 2014
  • Robert Weiss Senior Vice President of Clinical Development, Elements Behavioral Health

It's hardly a secret that holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year's, and the like cause many of us to overdo it with food, booze, spending, sex and a wide variety of other intensely pleasurable distractions. For the majority of us, those intensely pleasurable foods, substances, and behaviors are utilized not just to celebrate, but to socially lubricate, and perhaps even to escape the stress and emotional discomfort that the winter holidays inevitably bring. And for the most part there is nothing particularly wrong with any of that. Unfortunately for some people, using substances and/or behaviors as a way to "numb out" can become a habit, and those habits can escalate over time into addictions.

The simple truth is that the holiday season presents all of us -- even those who are not overly vulnerable to addiction -- with a challenging confluence of conflicting expectations, emotions and experiences. For starters, and this is true no matter where you sit on the ideological belief-in-Santa spectrum, there is a culturally influenced expectation of unrelenting happiness attached to the winter holidays. And this expectation is not totally off the mark. After all, the season is (for the most part) a time of heartfelt connection with family, friends and sometimes even total strangers -- a feel-good stretch of fun and frolic for kids from 1 to 92. Yet who among us can fully live up to that manic-happy standard for even a day, let alone six weeks, especially when we have to balance the budget, send cards to people we barely remember, tend to spouses and kids, and attend one event after another after another... and then repeat. Complicating matters, of course, is the fact that during the holidays most of us spend an awful lot of time with our families, and no one can push our buttons like the people who installed them -- meaning moms and dads, siblings, spouses, aunts and uncles, and the like.

So while the holidays truly are a time of joy and connection, they are also a time of stress and anxiety. Thus, the usual holiday reality is sparkling moments shining through quite a lot of disappointment, which is usually caused by the fact that we and those around us often fail in our duty to behave like Santa's perfect little elves. For those who truly love the holiday season, disappointment via unmet (albeit unrealistic) expectations can be quite difficult to deal with. Usually it helps if we consciously understand that holiday reality nearly always falls at least slightly shy of the romanticized perfection we see in TV movies. That said, for people who already struggle with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and the like (and who doesn't, at least a little bit), this holiday-induced heightened sense of disappointment can lead to a whole lot of self-soothing overindulgence, and potentially addiction. So it is best to beware and be prepared with some healthier coping mechanisms.

Holiday Survival Tactics

There are many ways to warm our hearts and lighten the emotional burden when the holidays begin to feel heartless. A few very basic tips are listed below.

Find gratitude. In simplest terms, the holidays are about gratitude. So whenever you feel down during the holidays, it is nearly always helpful to stop what you are doing, find a quiet spot, and list 10 things you are grateful for. The items can be big or little or anything in between. I am grateful that I have a job. I am grateful that it's sunny today. I am grateful that my children are healthy. I am grateful that my ailing mother is getting excellent medical care. Remember, you can't be grateful and depressed at the same time.

Talk about it. If you're feeling a bit blue, talk about how you are feeling with a loved one or a good friend. In all likelihood you'll find that the other person is also feeling a bit overwhelmed, which in and of itself is a great way to relieve the stress that you both are experiencing. In this way, you are helping not only yourself, but your trusted other. And no matter what, sharing about emotional discomfort is one of the most intimately connective things that any person can do. It is purely a heartfelt thing. And isn't heartfelt connection what the holidays are all about?

Pamper yourself. Sure, this is the time of year when you're supposed to be thinking about gifts for the kids, your spouse, the neighbors, and the coworker you drew in Secret Santa, but don't forget about yourself. Treating yourself to a warm bath, a massage, or even a cookie or cocktail (just not the whole plate of cookies or the whole bottle of booze) is actually a great idea, because the best gift you can give to the people around you is a relaxed and rejuvenated version of yourself. Combining your pampering with a few moments of gratitude is especially effective.

Remember what the season is really about. No matter your religion or belief system, the winter holidays are a time of spiritual connection. If you are able to keep this idea in the forefront of your mind, the holidays are much less likely to get you down.

If you're like most folks, these survival tips will be helpful, but you will probably still have moments when your emotions get the better of you, and you may well find yourself eating, drinking, spending (or whatever) a bit more than you'd like. You may even be worried that things are getting out of hand. If so, a mindfulness check in is usually a good idea. Ask yourself:

• Am I feeling sad, lonely, isolated, disappointed, or angry?

• Am I keeping any of my behaviors (eating, drinking, spending, gambling, being sexual, etc.) a secret?

• Am I finding it difficult to control my eating, drinking and flirting at parties and other holiday events?

• At parties and other holiday events, am I consistently looking for ways to bow out early?

• Am I struggling to handle holiday disappointments?

• Am I feeling and/or behaving in ways that are impulsive, compulsive, or obsessive?

If you answered yes to any of the above, you should definitely reach out to a friend or family member for help and support. You might even want to schedule a visit with a therapist so you can talk about what you are feeling and what's going on in your life. If you are worried that you already have or may be developing a problem with alcohol, drugs, or an addictive behavior, now is an excellent time to reach out for help. Making an appointment with and talking to a local therapist who specializes in addiction is the perfect place to start.

That said, it is important to keep in mind the fact that nearly everyone overindulges at least a little bit over the winter holidays. We eat too much turkey at Thanksgiving, we have one too many spiked eggnogs at the office party, we buy way too many presents for our wonderfully spoiled kids, or maybe we convince our spouse or date to join the "elevator club" on New Year's Eve. Whatever. That doesn't make us bad people; it just means we got carried away by the holiday spirit and forgot for a moment to exercise our better judgment. In other words, if you do something inadvisable over the holidays, there is no need to beat yourself up about it. If, however, you are repeatedly doing inadvisable things over the holidays, especially if it's the same inadvisable thing over and over, then you may want to back up and take a look at what's happening.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.