4 Brain-based strategies to prevent relapse during Christmas and New Year
It’s that time again – the carol singers are already at the door, there’s crap Christmas music on a loop in the supermarkets and you are probably wondering where the hell did the last year go.
Far from being a time of “good-will to all men” it’s actually a time when our worst selves emerge.
Christmas and New Year are difficult for many reasons and a large number of people cope with the madness by over-indulging with alcohol, drugs or food.
It can be a very challenging time to stay sober.
Just anticipating the stress that you might face can trigger thoughts of drinking – relapse rates are actually higher in the lead up to Christmas and New year than the actual period itself.
So NOW is a good time to start preparing.
Cultivate daily habits that reduce stress
Stress is one of the major triggers for relapse. As soon as we reach a certain threshold, the logical part of the brain shuts down and the emotional brain takes over.
At this point all we want is immediate relief and relaxation so we will revert back to old coping behaviours that are wired into the brain.
The last thing on our minds is our long term plans
It helps to think of stress as a pot that gets filled up. Throughout the day we either add to it, or drain it. When it reaches the brim – we pass the point of no return and it’s game over.
It is our daily actions, thoughts and feelings that will fill up the pot. And it is also our daily actions, thoughts and feelings that empty the pot.
So start paying attention to things that stress you throughout the day and try to reduce them.
One daily practice you can start today is meditation. Just ten minutes a day will help to re-wire the brain to combat stress
Meditation and slow breathing are the best ways to combat stress so look at how you are contributing to your own stress, and take action to reduce it.
Visualise your future goals
No doubt your decision to stop drinking or using drugs was driven by a fear of where your life was heading. You would have felt the painful gap between where your life was and where you want it to be.
But as time passes, we often forget the initial motivation for our decision to get sober. So re-vitalise that initial motivation.
When we think about a future self that we want to be – we activate part of the brain that is responsible for achieving goals and dreams – the pre-frontal cortex.
It is this part that is decommissioned by high stress but by activating it regularly, you are building up its strength and ability to withstand and over-ride stress.
But when you visualise your future self with emotion – you activate the emotional subconscious part of the brain. The part that usually sabotages our best laid plans. It is this part of the brain that we need on our side.
It helps to first write your vision down. Write about the life that you want to be leading in a year from now.
How are you going to feel in this ideal life?
How are you going to look?
Who will you be spending time with?
What will you be doing?
Really visualise how it will be and bring emotions to the vision. It is the emotions that activate the brain to start working towards getting what we want.
Play the tape forward.
There will be definitely times when you feel an urge to drink. Even if you work on reducing stress, you will still likely get cravings. A craving is actually a mild stress response so as soon as you feel it – you need to stop it escalating.
If you feed the craving by fixating on it, it will take you past your stress threshold and you’ll lose focus of your goals.
The emotional brain will kick in and push you towards drinking or using.
When this happens, stop and breathe slowly and deeply for a couple of minutes. This will start to switch of your stress response so you can get back access to your rational brain.
Then play through the whole scenario of drinking / using.
Imagine yourself taking that first drink, or that first smoke or whatever it is you might get the urge to do.
Really visualise how it is going to feel.
BUT don’t stop there. Continue to the very end of the story. You know how it will end up because you have lived it countless times before. You could write the script I’m sure.
The guilt, the shame, the self-loathing.
The feelings of disappointing yourself and letting yourself down yet again.
Most people who relapse just focus on the first feeling of euphoria that probably only lasts a micro-second.
Do yourself a favour and really look at the reality of what will happen if you relapse. Is it worth losing your dreams and goals for a moment of relief from a craving?
Identify the thoughts that will lead to using or drinking
You know yourself better than anyone. You know the stories (excuses) you tell yourself.
I’ll just have one
If I don’t drink, people will be disappointed.
If I don’t drink, I will make people uncomfortable
I will ruin people’s fun.
I’ll just drink through Christmas and then stop again in January.
I’ve done really well so far, I deserve to relax and enjoy myself with everyone else.
All of these are bullshit – but deep down you know that. These thoughts are coming from your emotional brain trying to make you drink.
In any change that we try and make, there are two brains in conflict.
The pre-frontal cortex (rational part) wants us to achieve our goals. It is more concerned with how we will feel long term.
Your emotional brain just wants immediate gratification. It doesn’t give a shit about how you are going to feel afterwards. So as soon as we start to feel uncomfortable, the emotional brain will generate a load of unhelpful thoughts to get you to seek immediate relief.
So get these thoughts out in the open now and challenge them before they sneak up on you in a time of stress.
Identify triggers and create a plan.
You will probably know how your Christmas will pan out. It’s the same routine for most of us every year. So what is the most difficult situation you are likely to encounter?
Are you going to be spending time with someone who really winds you up?
Are you going to parties where alcohol / drugs will be flowing?
Are you going to be on your own and feeling lonely?
Look ahead to the most difficult times for staying sober, and make an alternative plan. If you can’t avoid certain situations, then imagine how it is going to feel, what thoughts are likely to tempt you to drink / use and address then before hand.
Visualise appropriate responses to difficult situations ahead of time so that your brain is primed for the action you want to take. This is known as cognitive priming and is used by thousands of successful people to overcome obstacles and reach goals.
Your brain is extremely powerful – but it can be your best ally or your deadliest foe.
Start Christmas and 2017 as you mean to go on – healthy, happy and on track for a great life.