Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Holiday Drinking: What Is Normal?

How to survive work and social events

I recently read and interesting article about a Caron Treatment Centers study titled “Many Americans Oblivious to What High-Risk Drinking Looks Like.” Dr. Harris Stratyner was quoted as saying “Alcohol is still the number one cause of damaging behavior at holiday celebrations throughout the U.S”. The information in this article got me thinking… are the holidays a time and excuse for people to abuse alcohol and what are the consequences? The Caron Treatment Centers study found that even non-alcoholics are over-imbibing at these events and experiencing many negative effects such as:

  • 50% saw a co-worker/supervisor share inappropriate personal details about themselves or other colleagues
  • 45% saw a co-worker/supervisor flirting with another colleague
  • 43% saw a co-worker/supervisor drive even though he or she was drunk
  • 35% saw a co-worker/supervisor using excessive profanity
  • 30% saw a co-worker/supervisor argue, be abusive or engage in sexual activity
  • 60% of those who attend family holiday parties also reported that a family member behaved inappropriately after drinking too much alcohol. One respondent shared that alcohol prompted “a knock out drag out fist fight” and another spoke of “emotionally abusive behavior” during a family holiday party. Others said relatives wanted to drive even though they were drunk

I don’t want to be a “buzz kill” but my question is, are we having fun yet? In Pete Hamill’s book A Drinking Life his final drink before getting sober was at a New Year’s Eve party—and he writes: "But once more, I felt as if I were shooting the scene with a camera from across the bar...It was New Year's Eve. We were supposed to be having a good time. Look: there were balloons. There were funny hats. There were noise makers. Charlie, bring me a vodka and tonic, will you please?...I stared into my glass, at the melting ice and vodka-logged lime. And I said to myself, I am never going to do this again. I finished my drink. It was the last one I ever had." Hamill took a moment to step back from the festive scene, observed the drunken and insincere behavior and concluded that it felt meaningless. Alcohol is such an integral part of holiday events and this can be a challenge particularly for those who are sober and especially for those in early sobriety.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) low-risk drinking is defined as no more than four drinks per sitting and not more than 14 per week for men and no more than three drinks per sitting and no more than 7 per week for women.

The holidays are notoriously an emotionally “loaded” time for many people as well as a joyous time. They can be especially challenging for those who are sober or choosing not to drink. However, it is possible to be truly present for these holiday events without drinking or abusing alcohol by learning coping skills to tolerate or set limits with more challenging work and social engagements:

• Have an escape plan by bringing your own vehicle or figure out the available public transportation near the holiday event that will enable you to leave if you are feeling tempted to drink or uncomfortable.
• Ask another sober person to be "on call" for you to check in with during the event for additional support.
• Let someone whom you trust at the holiday event know that you may need additional support during this occasion or time of year.
• Find a tasty non-alcoholic beverage you can drink that will give you something to hold and may prevent people from offering you an alcoholic drink.
• Come up with a standard response as to why you are not drinking that may vary depending on the type of holiday event and if you want those in attendance to know you are sober: "I don't drink anymore," "I am not drinking tonight," "I am on medication and cannot have alcohol," "I am the designated driver tonight," etc.
• Be choosy about the holiday events that you attend and avoid "people pleasing" by saying "yes" to events that you don't need to nor don't want to be at.
• Take care of yourself prior to these events: get enough sleep, eat regularly, exercise, relax, meditate, etc.
• Find new holiday activities and traditions that you may never have tried in the past which do not involve drinking alcohol (volunteer at a soup kitchen, go ice skating, have a sober get-together and gift exchange, see a movie, take a trip, etc.)
• Remember to create structure for yourself if you have time off (volunteer, exercise, make plans, got to mutual-help group meetings, therapy, etc.).
• Work extra hours if needed in order to distract yourself.
• Learn to say "no" if you do not want to attend an event.
• Put your sobriety first and realize that others may not understand what this entails, but that it is your number one priority.
• "Just say no" to rum cake!
• Attend extra mutual-help group meetings during this season (i.e., A.A. has "alcathons" that involve 24 hours of meetings, food, socializing at designated locations on Thanksgiving Eve, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Contact your local A.A. Intergroup for more information.
• Be honest with loved ones if you are having a hard time and let them know how to support you.
• Remember that "this too shall pass" and there is life after the holidays.
• No matter how you are feeling, you do not have to drink!

For more resources and information about high-functioning alcoholics, visit

Learn about a new transitional sober living program in Boston, MA!

More from Sarah A. Benton LMHC, LPC, LCPC, AADC
More from Psychology Today