December 6, 2021

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Caitlin Harper

How To Thrive At Holiday Gatherings When You Don't Drink

While holiday gatherings are a great way to celebrate, let loose, and spend time with family and friends, for those who don’t drink (or drink much), holiday events and things like happy hours, boozy birthdays, weddings, and parties can be difficult to navigate. Here are a few tips for managing—and enjoying!—gatherings when you don’t drink or simply don’t drink as much as those around you.

While holiday gatherings are a great way to celebrate, let loose, and spend time with family and friends, for those who don’t drink (or don’t drink much), holiday events and things like happy hours, boozy birthdays, weddings, and parties can be difficult to navigate.

Alcohol’s ability to transport you, numb you, and make you forget can be an appealing escape when things feel overwhelming. And in social situations, plenty of people use alcohol as a social lubricant to feel more relaxed and maybe a bit more uninhibited. But many of us who drink or used to drink know its negative effects all too well.

In addition to hangovers—and hangxiety—alcohol can erode away many of the organs that help us function, including the liver, pancreas, and heart. It can worm its way into your brain function, making it tougher to concentrate and balance, by impeding the neurological communication pathways that make our brains so powerful. Even one incident of binge drinking can impact your immune system—making you more vulnerable to getting sick—for up to 24 hours.

Still, when alcohol consumption is the norm, somehow you can be the one who looks silly to others when you choose to stay sober. Here are a few tips for managing—and enjoying!—gatherings when you don’t drink or simply don’t drink as much as those around you.

If you do go to events where you know you might be expected to drink, have a plan for how you’ll turn down drinks

It may seem overkill before the party has even begun, but knowing what you’ll say when someone offers you a drink (or insists that you have one!) can be hugely helpful when you find yourself facing a champagne toast or and invitation to take a shot.

“Practice your ‘I don’t drink anymore’ delivery. Sometimes, just keeping it really simple creates space for it to sink in for others,” said Joanne Davies, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “You can also follow up with what you do do: ‘I love to eat/dance/look at art/I’ve been really getting into botanicals and tea.’”

In many social circles, binge drinking is the norm, so rejecting that norm might surprise people. Having your response ready—“I’d love to celebrate with you! But I have a drink (water, soda, mocktail) I’m working on already. Cheers!”—can smooth things over and help you enjoy yourself without skipping a beat.

Alcohol peer pressure is real, and you don’t have to deal with it

“Develop a plan,” said Stacy McCall-Martin, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Have a safe and sober friend you trust attend an event with you who can be your excuse if you need to leave. Also, understand that attending an event is optional.”

That’s right—if you think a gathering will be troublesome for you, you can turn an invitation down. Whether you make up an excuse (“I have other plans!”) or you state the truth (“I’m trying to keep my distance from alcohol right now”), you are well within your right to decline an invitation to any event that has the potential to negatively impact your physical or mental health.

“I'm lucky that my friends are very understanding and have left the heavy drinking days behind them,” said Mariah Parker, MyWellbeing’s Head of Growth. “I had a friend in college who was allergic to alcohol and couldn't drink for medical reasons, and she sometimes had to tell people she would die if she drank to get them to stop pressuring her.”

Provide tasty non-alcoholic options for yourself

Often, one of the hardest things to avoid at parties are offers to get you a drink or refill your glass, from the host or any well-intentioned guest. The best way to avoid this is to simply have a drink in your hand already—then you can just reply that you’re all set and there’s very little chance of follow-up or peer pressure.

But just because you’re not drinking alcohol doesn’t mean you need to miss out on the fun. Instead of sticking to water or soft drinks, bring along exactly what you enjoy, whether it’s fancy soda, sparkling water, or a fun mocktail.

“I'm new to not drinking, so when I want to drink (and know I'll regret it later), I usually think about what I really want with the drink,” said Mariah Parker, MyWellbeing’s Head of Growth. “I'm a sugar fiend, so it's usually just a tasty drink with some complexity. Then, I try to find a substitute from the nonalcoholic options. I had chrysanthemum tea at a friend's birthday party and it had the complexity of a cocktail without the alcohol.”

If you find yourself struggling with cravings while you’re at a gathering, “crowding them out” by shifting your focus from the discomfort you might feel to the fun and fancy non-alcoholic drink can trick your mind by satisfying part of the habit you had developed: to have a glass in your hand with an attractive cocktail.

Whether or not you partake in alcoholic beverages, it’s always nice to give people options for not consuming alcohol

You never know who might not be drinking and why. From pregnancy to medical conditions to being in recovery to just not liking the taste, there are plenty of reasons why people don’t drink—but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to enjoy what they do drink—and to enjoy themselves at gatherings!

“If I'm hosting, I also get Ritual Zero Proof or another of the surprisingly convincing alcohol substitutes to make mocktails, but incorporating herbs can also give you that ‘cocktail’ flavor without the alcohol,” said Mariah.

Let your support system know you need some care in advance

Because of the various reasons people decide not to drink as well as the rise of the sober-curious movement, you might be surprised by how many people respect your decision to cut down on or cut out alcohol.

When it comes to not drinking at holiday gatherings and other social events, reach out to these people for support so you have a system in place beforehand. Whether it’s a friend you can call before and after a party, a sponsor, or a pal who is also attending the event, let them know what you need from them to stay safe.

“Call your sponsor, if you have one, or other sober friends before you get in a jam,” said Ruth Kyle, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member.

“If you can't completely avoid events where alcohol is served, restrict time at the event. Arrange with a sober friend to call and check on you at a certain timeframe after arriving. If the friend feels you are in danger and should leave, you can truthfully use the excuse ‘gotta go, my friend needs me to do something.’”

“Remember that people want to see you, and most will be glad to support your journey and run interference if needed.”

Choose to participate in activities and spend time with people at a gathering who will support you

Whether it’s your end-of-year office party or dinner at your grandma’s, there’s a good chance there are activities you can enjoy that don’t involve alcohol. Offer to be the event photographer, prep food, or just find the comfiest couch in the room and let people come socialize with you.

If there’s music, dance! You can still have a great time at a gathering when you’re alcohol-free (and you’ll be more likely to remember how much fun you had the following day).

If you’re struggling with addiction or recovery, or simply want to cut back your alcohol consumption and are looking for ways to cope, therapy could help

“When someone is in the process of giving up on using a substance, they are in a state of loss not unlike mourning the death of a loved one,” said Josh Ring, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “They often feel, rightfully so, that something essential to who they are is missing. It’s going to take time to get through this stage.”

“This is where therapy can be very useful. A strong therapeutic relationship can help a patient to process all the difficult and unbearable feelings that arise when a person makes the courageous choice to stop using alcohol. Therapy provides a way out through the power of talking and understanding all the other feelings that are available to have.”

The holidays can be stressful enough; they don’t have to be more stressful by worrying about drinking—or not drinking

Getting a plan in place about how you’ll turn down another round, figuring out what beverages you’ll enjoy instead, and making sure you have the support people and activities you need to have a good time will set you up for success so you can enjoy holiday gatherings and stay safe in the process.

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About the author

Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.

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