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4 Ways Alcohol Can Trash Your Holidays

Have fun at year's end without wrecking your brain, wallet, or relationships.

Haven't we all been to that holiday party where a coworker or family member drank too much, tried to ride the inflatable lawn ornaments and hit on Santa?

Well, if you haven't yet, its probably coming. Research shows alcohol use during the holidays spikes, starting with Thanksgiving and continuing until New Years Day. According to research by the Caron Center (a national substance treatment center):

  • 16% percent of adults will drink more than their usual during the holidays
  • 22 percent have felt pressured to drink at a work party.
  • A staggering 96 percent admitted to going to work hungover after a holiday party, or knew someone who did.

End of year celebrations frequently have alcohol present or even encourage it. Work parties can be seen as sanctioned times to drink with your boss during the day. At least 53 percent of families report alcohol plays a significant role in their holiday celebrations.

So what are the risks of making the season merry and bright?

1. Financial: Money talks. A surprising amount can be spent on alcohol during the weeks from Thanksgiving to New Years. A new survey by OnePoll/Morning Recovery found that Americans double their alcohol intake during the holidays. This adds up to on average $537 spent on socializing during the week from Thanksgiving through New Years versus an average of $241 per month the rest of the year.

The cost can be higher for companies and employers. In the same survey, adults called in sick at least twice during the Christmas holidays due to alcohol use, with a reported average of 3 'rough mornings' per week after drinking. An additional 7 out of 10 admitted to lower productivity at work during this same period.

 Amen clinic used with permission
Brain SPECT imaging showing alcohol damage
Source: Amen clinic used with permission

2. Brain effects: Alcohol initially acts as a stimulant, with the user generally feeling relaxed, happy, and excited. At a higher level, alcohol inhibits the prefrontal cortex, which is the 'brake' of the brain. Taking that brake offline can cause out of character, impulsive, and aggressive behaviors. At even higher levels, slurred speech, impaired coordination and sedation occur. Some report blackouts, which is not a loss of consciousness but a loss of memory formation. The person may be speaking and walking but will not create any memories during this time period. Extremely heavy, long-term alcohol use can cause permanent memory loss and brain injury, which can be seen on brain imaging.

3. Social Embarrassment: Self-explanatory, given what happens in the brain. No one can 'unsee' your antics with the Xerox machine or the hot mess you started with Mrs. Claus. A #metoo moment fueled by alcohol can be even more sinister to your career and family relationships.

4. Relapse: The holidays can be particularly hard on those who are struggling with addiction. The end of the year is considered a time to reflect, celebrate, and enjoy friends and family. This puts a lot of pressure on those with addiction to join the celebrations. "Having just one" is a certain path to relapse. Additional pressure comes with holidays in general; stress, grieving, and isolation are all too common triggers for relapse.

So given all this, you must be asking, can I have any fun and still do the safe thing?

Answer: Yes! Here are 5 strategies to avoid total carnage:

1. Know safe limits: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has published guidelines on safe drinking: No more than one drink an hour and no more than 4 drinks per day for men and 3 drinks per day for women.

A standard liquor drink should contain no more than 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.
Source: wikimediacommons

2. Measure your drinks: You will be surprised to know that 5 ounces of wine is a standard drink, as is 12 ounces of beer and 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. That means that large wine glass full to the brim probably equals closer to 2 and a half glasses, not one.

3. Ignore the myths: Coffee does not "sober you up." It just makes you more alert while you are drunk. Instead of that cup of joe, try water, and lots of it. In fact, space your drinks with water between to avoid a rapid increase in your blood alcohol level.

4. Eat: Make sure to eat something before you go to a party and eat while you are there. Never drink on an empty stomach; this will spike your blood alcohol levels and accelerate brain effects.

5. Watch out for your family and friends: Be aware of others who are more vulnerable with alcohol. This includes those in recovery, women, and teens. Alcohol can be dangerous or fatal for these folks.

The holiday season can be joyous. Be smart to make sure yours is safe as well.