Coping with too much holiday cheer

Editor's note: We pulled this story out of the archives now that the holidays are back.

When it comes to celebrating this time of year, many are faced with family and friends who drink too much. But as much as we may laugh at the "Drunk Uncle" character from Saturday Night Live, overindulgence can cause added stress and concern during holiday gatherings. So how can we protect ourselves emotionally when Aunt Beatrice can't hold her egg nog?

"A lot of people are disappointed as the holidays approach because they realize this isn't going to be the opportunity they had hoped for mutual support, recognition and affection from their families or friends," said Dr. David Sack, president and CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, which oversees several addiction treatment programs around the country, including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and Los Angeles.

Sack said there is a direct link between alcohol abuse and hopelessness, which has increased with the recent economic instability.

"I think we're seeing a cumulative affect of the stress of the recession and the high unemployment rate — that it's starting to push upward in terms of who comes in to treatment," Sack said. "You have people who have been out of work two years and three years, so there's not much to look forward to for the holidays."

Mark Pfeffer, director of the Panic/Anxiety Recovery Center in Chicago, said many of us put added pressure on ourselves during the holidays in the hope that if all goes well, it will undo all the bad memories of our past. This, he said, can lead to self-medication with alcohol, food or even shopping.

"Think about the symphony of emotions that people bring to the event ranging anywhere from anxiety about seeing people you haven't seen in a while to sad memories sometimes associated with the holidays," Pfeffer said. "So they're coming to these events probably in a mode of doing things to an excess. People go into the holidays probably in a very vulnerable state. So you have to be prepared for the worst, especially with those (guests) who are usually a problem."

Here are some tips to surviving holiday gatherings when overindulgence reigns supreme:

Pick your battles.

"There are two types of (guests) — the nondisruptive guest and the disruptive guest," Pfeffer said. "For the nondisruptive guest, every family has them — the uncle who has too much to drink and smells like liquor and he either falls asleep or may have an accident. Some people whisper and then he's rushed away. The disruptive guest requires immediate response and sometimes removal."

Have a plan.

"I tell party hosts to assign a response team," Pfeffer said. "This should be two or three people who are more neutral people, not someone involved with the disruptive person. And they scout around and keep an eye out for things. They can communicate nonverbally. If they give the sign to mobilize, take that person to a 'time out' room. This is a room for those people who are full of emotions and maybe not just from over doing it, but they may need a grace period to recover or a place where you can regroup if they need to be staged to get out of there."

Create boundaries.

"Set limits with that friend or relative and be honest with them," Sack said. "Say, 'You know what, you're not welcome here if you've been drinking. There have been too many instances where things haven't gone well and we won't tolerate that this year.'"

"Sometimes it's good to have someone volunteer to have a discussion with the person known to have a issues before the event," Pfeffer said. "It's uncomfortable, but if someone did that who is not a button-pusher, it could be really effective."

Don't ignore the problem.

"People feel they should be more forgiving over the holidays but they're not doing their relative any favors by tolerating their addiction," said Sack. "This is not a gift. The gift is to say, 'We care about you enough that we'd like to take you to treatment to get help.' Looking the other way just continues the cycle."

Don't serve alcohol.

"I know a lot of families who simply won't serve alcohol because there are family members who have a problem with alcohol," Sack said. "They set the expectation with the family that, 'We don't do alcohol here because we're not going to have a sloppy drunk and the drama,' and that helps. Nobody says you have to have alcohol to enjoy the holidays."

Pfeffer agreed and added, "If you are going to host someone who will likely overindulge, don't get loaded yourself. It just makes things more difficult for you to handle things and you might make the wrong decisions. Be the poster child for what you want your guest to be."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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