The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

This December, we should be mindful that for many, the festive season can be far from jolly. While the holidays are generally associated with celebrations and socialising with friends and family, a jovial atmosphere can often hide difficult triggers for people affected by mental illness and addiction.

For people struggling with eating disorders or substance abuse, the focus on food and alcoholic drinks at parties and gatherings for weeks on end can be difficult - or even trigger a relapse in behaviour. For people struggling with depression or who lack social support, the focus on family and community gatherings can reinforce feelings of loneliness. And while family gatherings can provide comfort and joy for many, those dealing with family trauma or strained relationships may face increased risk of addictive behaviours.

Below, we will take a closer look at the stigma that surrounding addiction, how to identify the key features of dependence, and highlight some of the steps that we can take to successfully - and sensitively - navigate through the weeks leading up to Christmas.

TRIGGER WARNING: The following text may trigger difficult feelings. If you experience feelings of distress, help can be found here.

The Stigma Surrounding Addiction

The stigma around drug and alcohol addiction can be an insurmountable hurdle on the journey to sobriety as, for many of us, when we think about addiction we may automatically start thinking about ‘drug addicts’ or ‘alcoholics’; gambling or sex addiction. However, addiction can take on many different forms, and it can affect all of us in very different ways.

According to Rehab UK, 15 million people in Britain are currently dealing with a substance use disorder, and the stigma around addiction remains pervasive. And according to a recent study, 75% of people do not think addiction is a chronic disease with 53% believing addiction is caused simply by ‘bad character’. Many people with substance use disorders suffer in silence because of the fear they have of being ostracised and excluded. Unfortunately, their fears are not unfounded: the survey also found that 65% of people would not want to work with someone who has a substance use disorder.

These misconceptions have dangerous consequences: 46% of those with substance use disorders say these stigmas make them feel ashamed of their addiction, meaning that just 10% of people who need help actively seek out care. The biggest challenge is that people don't disclose when they're struggling, but instead, worry that their co-workers will talk about them behind their backs - or that they'll lose their job, just for admitting that they may have an issue with substance use. And for those who do seek help, workplace attitudes are still limiting to their success. The survey also found that 30% of people would not want to work with someone in recovery, and 34% are unwilling to hire a person undergoing treatment for a substance use disorder. Identifying Substance Addiction

The most common form of substance abuse in the UK is alcohol addiction. The NHS estimates that around 9% of men in the UK and 3% of UK women show signs of alcohol dependence. This means that drinking alcohol becomes an important, or sometimes the most important, factor in their life and they feel they’re unable to function without it. The pandemic also brought us a generation of ‘grey area drinkers’ - people who consume more than a moderate amount of alcohol but don’t meet the criteria for dependence.

Identifying when there is a problem can be challenging. There are three key areas to identify: Dependence, Withdrawal and the nature of our Craving. Of course, addictions are not limited to the use of illegal drugs: alcohol, sugar and caffeine are all addictive substances that can have a detrimental effect on our lives, and our ability to function as happy healthy individuals.

The first hallmark feature of addiction is dependence, whereby the body needs more of the drug to get the effect they want. Another symptom of physical dependence is then withdrawal - many addicts will actually say that they physically need the drug just to feel normal; they don't function anymore without it. The third hallmark feature is craving. When the addict does not have the thing they crave, they can feel an extremely strong desire or urge to use their drug - they may even find it difficult to think of anything else and become completely obsessed with getting more, at any cost, causing harm to self and others.

Behavioural Addictions

And let's not forget behavioural or process addictions. As science has progressed, we have begun to realise that things like pathological gambling, gaming, obsessive use of social media, overspending, or even seemingly-helpful behaviours such as exercise, cleaning, work and dieting, satisfy many of the major criteria of addiction. Many scientists now consider such behavioural or process addictions to be the same kind of addictive disorder as chronic drug abuse.

All types of addiction are important to identify, as they all have a significant short and long term effect on a multitude of brain and bodily functions, which in turn, changes our ability to be happy and productive.

Addiction and its Effect on Performance

Considering what we now know about addiction, and how every one of might be susceptible to it, it is vital that all organisations and customers consider how they might play their own part in creating the environment in which addiction can thrive. So many people within companies of all sizes are expected to entertain and to be entertained – and the Christmas parties, lunches and get-togethers are now considered to be something that individuals are obligated to participate in. Entertaining clients, networking with contacts and ‘celebrating’ with our colleagues – especially those we seek to fit in with or impress - can all place an enormous amount of pressure on employees to take part in activities which are could be harmful to their health.

Organisations and individuals are therefore huge influencers when it comes to the manifestation of addiction. This needs to change - and it can change.

The neuroscience of reward and the numbing of the pleasure receptors can be invaluable to our learning. The constant striving for perfection creates the same effect and contributes to our addiction to work. We often reward this striving and reinforce the behaviour with bonuses, reputational enhancements and job promotions (encouraging this larger-than-normal increase of dopamine). As clients of organisations we can also be fiercely demanding in our unrelenting expectations which are often unrealistic, unobtainable and detrimental to the individuals that carry out services for you. (Lawyers are a perfect example of this, where it has become ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ for clients to demand more work than is realistic, and beyond what even the highest achievers are capable of.)

So, addiction is a problem for us all, and as a dopamine-dependent society we must be responsible for ourselves and others; as employers, employees and as customers. Steps to Help Yourself - And Others While Christmas brings an emphasis on giving, remember that you firstly deserve to give to yourself. This means being patient and generous with yourself, noticing your own triggers, and setting the boundaries you need to stay healthy. Successfully navigating the holidays requires self-awareness and community support.

Experts recommend the following four key steps:

  • Be honest with yourself. While it may be tempting to pretend that you’re not at a risk of relapse, the truth is that recovery is a long-term process. Taking time before the holiday rush to check in with yourself, and being honest about what is likely to be a trigger, can prevent you from walking into that holiday party unprepared.

  • Respect the wishes of others. There are lots of reasons why a person might turn down a party invitation. They could be struggling with their own addictions, or indeed, be managing really well in their recovery as a result of avoiding circumstances where their triggers are more likely to arise. The key word here is respect. Respect their choices and don't pressurise them to join in - or tease them for not doing so. Also, don't assume that someone won't want to join in just because they are in recovery - have the conversation.

  • Plan ahead. Before going to an event or party, consider what is likely to be triggering for you and what you’ll do when you encounter these triggers. As Vanderbilt psychiatry and pharmacology professor Peter R. Martin, MD tells Everyday Health, “An alcoholic needs to wake up each morning thinking about how to stay sober that day.” Simple steps like eating before the party to avoid making impulsive decisions, and carrying your own nonalcoholic beverages can keep you thinking clearly in the moment.

  • Reach out – The holidays are about community, and that includes any community that can support you with whatever your addiction might be. Reach out to trusted family members and friends to communicate your intention to stay on the right path over the coming weeks.

Sometimes, all the hype around the holidays can have the opposite of its intended effect. With so much pressure to make December the most wonderful time of the year, people who are hurting - whether that be from a mental illness, traumatic experience, or simply loneliness — may find themselves feeling even more isolated. It’s okay to find the holidays difficult. It’s okay to feel that you’re struggling. That doesn’t make you anti-social, unusual, or ‘a grinch’ – it simply makes you human!

If you would like work with a mental health practitioner who can offer advice and supervisory support on specialist topics such as addiction, self-awareness and perfectionism, then please do get in touch.

We can also tailor sessions according to your business needs, and provide bespoke discussion topics for a variety of audiences.

Remember, the most important aspect of any holiday season is loving, healthy connections. By taking the steps you need to successfully navigate triggers this season, you’re making that community stronger for yourself and everyone around you.

Best wishes for the season ahead,

Stacy Thomson Founder of The Performance Club on behalf of all of the team

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