Beating Stress, Addiction, and Anxiety During the Holidays


h_samuelsToday I have the opportunity to interview Howard Samuels, Psy.D., author of “Alive Again: Recovering from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction” on the topic of managing addiction, stress, and anxiety during the holidays. Dr. Samuels is the founder and president of the prestigious The Hills Treatment Center in Los Angeles. He is an internationally renowned recovery expert and he appears regularly on national TV news shows about the challenges of drug addiction.

1. Everyone wants to enjoy the holidays but the reality is that for many, holidays can bring a lot of stress and anxiety. Many people (whether they have a drinking problem or not) drink in excess during the holidays. Does this come as a surprise to you?

It’s no surprise to me because I’m an American. Our culture is all about boozing it up whenever we can especially to escape pressures or stressors. You can’t drive a mile without seeing a huge billboard advertising alcohol. And, for many of us when we were growing up, drinking — and being old enough to drink — was the goal. Add to this the “carpet-bombing” advertising that alcohol companies use around the holidays, the advent of back-to-back holiday parties and the pressure everyone’s under to drink at every gathering and what you wind up with is a Perfect Storm for over-drinking. In my profession (I own a rehab), we deal with alcoholics and periodic drinkers who have no real impulse control. These environments are anathema to them, but we have ways of negating the need to drink in these situations. But then you have the folks who aren’t alcoholic, and they run the risk of not really knowing what their limits are, so it can be dangerous for them, too. Bear in mind, incidents of alcohol poisoning and car crashes spike around the holidays. None of these statistics are imaginary. I like how one company advertises , “DRINK RESPONSIBLY”. But, after one or two drinks, your inhibitions are loosened and your judgment is impaired, so naturally, one or two party-goers are bound to “overshoot” the mark. It’s not surprising that so many people drink to excess around the holidays, but I do think it’s something to notice and raise awareness about.

2. How are your holidays different now that you’ve been sober for over 29 years? (Do you get stressed out still? How do you deal with it differently?)

My knee-jerk reaction is to say that nothing’s changed. I’m still an alcoholic. I’m still subject to pressure and I am still capable — if I don’t take care of myself — of succumbing to depression. And this isn’t just around the holidays. I tell people all the time that my disease – my alcoholism – is a beast. And every time you see me laughing at a party or speaking my mind on a television show, you need to know that my beast is in the other room doing push-ups. Diabetics take insulin everyday or they will die. It’s the same way with me. There are things I do that keep my beast at bay. There is a prescription for success that requires that I take certain actions to protect my sobriety. If the holidays are any different, it is only because they’ve introduced new and exciting liquers, each of which has its own appeal. But I have a wonderful support system in place, and I use an anti-depressent to cope with the chemical imbalance in my brain, and all of what I do amounts to maybe an hour a day — of my life — dedicated to taking care of myself. An hour a day! Such a small price to pay for the rewards I am reaping. Because I’ve got to tell you, I have three children, and none of them have ever seen me drunk. My holidays are different only in that I am finally the man I want to be, even though I still acknowledge that I am a still work in progress.

3. What are some things to look for when trying to identify the symptoms of holiday blues?

The number one symptom, in my book, is isolation. Many who suffer from depression, anxiety and alcoholism are convinced that the cure for loneliness is isolation when, the truth of the matter is, it’s not. It’s a struggle, I’m sure, but when you find yourself having the blues, sometimes the best thing for you to do is get out amongst the people. Are your friends all preoccupied or out of town? It doesn’t matter. You can always find something to do. Even if it’s just a free seminar at the Apple store; you never know what’s going to excite you or get you out of yourself. I had a client who, whenever she was depressed, she’d plop down thirty bucks for a cooking class at The Learning Annex and create a whole new social network, just by showing up. I have three kids and my wife is great at looking through the paper to find free or inexpensive things to do with them every weekend. Our culture promotes connection. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a farm in South Dakota or an apartment building in Manhattan, someone somewhere is working very hard to make it easy for you to reach out and get connected. You just have to do your part and meet them halfway. You’ve got to be willing to do the work.

4. How do you stay in the right frame of mind — can you give us some spiritual tips that would help anyone to get through stress and anxiety during the holidays?

The spiritual tips I use remain the same all year round: It’s better to give than to receive. Believe me, I’m the first person in any situation to demand my comeuppance, and that is when I have to remind myself that there was a time when I had NOTHING, and that perhaps I should get up and DO SOMETHING FOR SOMEONE ELSE. My own needs are going to be met. History has shown me that. Yet, it is only when I am invested in helping someone else that I feel truly happy. And I’m always sure to never expect a “Thank You” for my efforts; it isn’t an act of kindness if you expect something in return for it — even if it’s a Thank You. The reward for loving is Loving. The reward for Being of Service is Being Of Service.

I also make sure that my values are in order. It’s very easy for me to place high priorities on things that just don’t matter. So, sometimes, I simply sit down and make a Gratitude List. This is a list of 10 things that I am truly grateful for and it is a terrific way to put things in perspective and separate the garbage from the ice cream. I have a very clear idea of what matters to me today, and it helps me to not get bogged down by what the outside world is telling me to care about. The notion that this product or that product is what I need to make me happy — or that only an Academy Award will make people love me in the way I deserve to be loved — has to be smashed. Because none of those things matter to me. I could not care less about those things. But, it is easy for me to buy into them and believe I need them in order to be happy and feel good about myself, when the truth is, I just don’t. I can remember a time when a hot sandwich was all I needed to be happy — because I was broke! And now my television is telling me I need a Mazeratti in order to feel whole and complete! Can you believe that?

Be of Service and Stay Grateful. It works for me, and it can work for you, too.

Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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