I have to ask myself this question every year because every year I get this immense dislike of Christmas, alcohol, food and socials. It is all in excess and it is all excessive. I wondered why I felt like this so I started to read about the fact that people booze it up over the festive season more than during the rest of the year. Why is this? And why does it trigger me, in particular?
Some of the answers are obvious: people are tired from a year of hard slog and labour, family issues, mental and emotional health issues, children stresses and more. People want out, they want to forget and they want that instant relief that alcohol gives them. But only drinkers would do this because only drinkers know about this feeling of being relaxed if they drink or think that they are feeling relaxed and destressed if they drink.
False Beliefs about Alcohol
More people have come to believe that alcohol is the most important part of their festive season. I was brought up like that with parents who put alcohol first for everything. We would go to the coast for our family holidays and we towed an entire trailer for the beer! It was my dad’s pride and joy, especially unpacking it at the destination, a gracious old beach cottage. The trailer was full of cans and when we got there and unloaded these cans, they formed a tower in the kitchen area of our beach cottage.
My parents drank if it was hot, if it was cold, if they were happy or sad, celebrating or crying. They drank if there was a birthday, a funeral, a storm or a public holiday. Christmas was the excuse to go all out for the year, to make up for the days when they didn’t drink, which were none!
As a kid, I never put two and two together because I was trying to survive my mother’s drinking and the repercussions thereof. Being left at school after sport in the dark, being driven home drunk so that we nearly wrote off the car, having parties into the early hours with my sister’s friends, and just because.
Reasons Why People Drink More over Christmas
But I digress. Why does everyone drink so much over Christmas? Let’s look at the obvious and more intense reasons:
- The year is over and the need to celebrate and forget the pain of work and social and family stresses is huge
- The holiday blues hit and depression finds its way into the psyche after a year of just hamster wheeling the way and not allowing the thoughts and feelings to surface
- Holidays are stressful – too many people are out and about, traffic is worse, crowds are everywhere and it is hot or cold, wherever you are.
- Family gatherings are expected and enforced and many people do not like or fit into these
- The media portrays alcohol as the party lubricant that makes us magically the centre of all attention, the most beautiful person there and the funniest
- People are like sheep and follow the crowd which is generally drinking a lot
- People want to drink because they think they enjoy it and they are having fun.
I gave up alcohol 7 years ago soon and that first festive season sober was very hard for me. I became terrified to go out and socialise and the more I read about this, the more I realised that I did not have to do anything I didn’t want to do. I could say NO.
So, I started to say NO and I am now 7 years down the line and I am still saying NO – I am a complete loner who refuses to go out at night. It is the real me who emerged from behind all of that alcohol because I was hiding, I was trying to be that cool cat who could cope with anything, just give me a glass of wine at 5pm.
Christmas is a time when people tend to drink more. In colder climates, it is to enhance the feeling of warmth and jovial friendliness, and in hotter areas, it is about cooling down in the swimming pool with a beer or sipping wine as the sun sets or having countless braais with friends who drink, and so on. The media certainly also portrays this image very clearly.
Is this a Hoax?
The year ends with a huge bang at New Year which is a piss up of note. Then what? People get ready for work. They become depressed and know that they are going to detox, not only for their health but because they have blown all their money on booze during December! They are nursing a huge hangover from all the food and drink anyway and need to get rid of that with a new exercise routine. Why do we create these boxes for our enjoyment? Christmas is a piss up jovial time and January is a dry, no money, depressing detox time?
Is this a joyous time, or a depressing time, or just one big hoax? Why is it that society associates alcohol with joy, with celebration, with having a good time? Because of the media and our upbringings, the way we were all taught by our parents, their parents, their grandparents and so on. My father’s side of the family were the Irish whiskey drinkers so, ya, he did the same.
Peer pressure is a huge factor, especially for teenagers, but also for us adults. Going out to a braai or a dinner and everyone is drinking good wines and champagnes puts the pressure on everyone else to drink. Those who are sober or who never drank alcohol can feel left out and alone. I always leave a party or social early because I can, and because I am not part of that alcohol infused conversation that is peppered with raucous laughter and silly jokes – I would rather be knitting and reading!
Jeanette Hu on Psychology Today gets it right: “We live in a society where consuming alcohol is socially approved and encouraged. Not drinking often requires courage and the ability to stand one’s ground. If you have ever tried to turn down an alcoholic drink without an excuse at a party, chances are you are familiar with the questioning looks on others’ faces. The overwhelming social pressure poses an additional challenge for people who want to stay away from alcohol.”
She notes that while alcohol can be a stress reliever at first, it quickly takes over your mind and physiology to causes more stress than ever before. Sure, alcohol affects that feel-good feeling and it teases the dopamine in your brain to make you feel good. But after the third glass, you are tipsy and feeling out of it anyway so that doesn’t last and at the end of the day, it creates more stress, guilt and shame. If you are broke, sad, or alone or stuck in traffic does alcohol solve those problems? If your partner leaves you, or a parent or a friend dies, does alcohol help? It never does, no.
Carrie DeJong notes that we are wired to connect with others, to be part of a group and loved and to love. Often, the drinkers who drink to be able to connect are actually disconnecting via the alcohol – many people who drink are loners, introverts and love to sit alone at home but in actual fact, they are the very people who need to connect with others to get those oxytocin hugs and kisses just to feel good.
“Abraham Maslow developed a theory about our hierarchy of needs. He identified a sense of love and belonging as a fundamental need that must be met if we are to reach our fullest potential as human beings. Advances in neuroscience provide the data to back up this theory. We now have a greater understanding of how vital attachment relationships are and how they help shape our brain as well as our emotional patterns.”
Carrie notes that Christmas with family causes stress because often we create these artificial havens of love and togetherness when in actual fact families do not have to or need to be together over Christmas as all. Many family members do not get along and this causes enormous tension over the festive season. Often, coming together for Christmas places one family member in the same vicinity as a family member who hurt them, abused them, abandoned them or neglected them and this causes huge angst.
Often, family members feel the need for self-protection during a family Christmas, or for connection but there is conflict due to underlying histories and previous knowledge about something that happened years ago. According to Dejong, these three reasons may be why people drink too much during a family Christmas:
- The people you are spending time with are also those who have harmed you.
But how do you handle the challenge of spending time with someone who has harmed you? What if you experience a strong urge to protect yourself and would prefer to avoid an unhealthy or unsafe person but expectations or circumstances make them impossible to avoid? Or what do you do with the confusion created by still wanting a relationship with someone who has severely wounded or traumatized you in the past? Which need wins out: the need for connection or the need for self-protection?
- Your loved ones are not the ones responsible for the significant past traumas, but your alarm system keeps you fearful they could harm you.
We are hardwired for self-preservation. The entire body goes into alert mode when we have to be around the person who has hurt us. And yet who is to blame? No one really. We want to run if we have now had to be in the same room as someone who is the source of our painful and traumatic childhood.
3. You experience shame, anger, or a sense of inadequacy that heightens the difficulty connecting with loved ones.
Those who struggle with drinking often experience an overwhelming sense of shame or inadequacy. For some, this profound sense of self-loathing creates a strong desire to withdraw or avoid connection. There may be a deep desire to isolate, numb out, and shut down. If your substance use has negatively impacted your loved ones, a sense of guilt might make you want to avoid contact with them entirely. Or if someone you loved is a drinker, you may want to avoid them completely too.
Dejong gives great advice about what to do if this is happening to you. You are drinking to avoid the stress over Christmas because someone in your family hurt you in the past. But the very fact that you are drinking is not going to help this situation at all, it will just add fuel to the fire within you. If that someone was also a drinker, then you are repeating the pattern, doing the same as them, and you are also heightening that sense of guilt and shame and not addressing your problem head-on.
The problem is that someone hurt you so instead of drinking to avoid it and hiding, tackle that issue with a therapist and move forward. Ditch the drink and come to terms with the past being the past and only the present mattering right now. Easier said than done right? Maybe the first step is to say NO to the next family Christmas and explore some self-care, alone, or with a few loved ones who do not trigger you.
Learn how to address the issue of drinking too much over Christmas:
- Become aware of WHY you drink too much over Christmas. Check out all my reasons above. If it is a deep-seated issue, or a trauma, get professional help.
- Start to make small changes and shifts in your life around this time and try to be healthy. Start to learn about the impact of alcohol on your holistic health – heart, immune system, body, mind and soul. Learn how to install personal boundaries and to live your best life – is that with or without alcohol?
- Try to address the fear, the misconnection and the avoidance with better knowledge about your needs and your values, what you want out of life and you may realise that alcohol does not feature in a healthy life for you, the real you.
This Christmas can be different. Do something different. Don’t drink. Try an alcohol-free bubbly and some 0% beers. Or just coffee and teas like me! Get out of town and into nature. It works. Good luck, and – Cheers!