Ram Dass profoundly states, “If you think you are enlightened, go spend a week with your family.”
As the holiday season quickly approaches, so do temptations to indulge in old habits from which we have already broken free. This resurfacing is often instigated by spending time with loved ones who may not understand our new patterns. Old stories reemerge, and the emotions that come with them have the ability to blindside us with stress.
While our culture often calls the holidays “the most joyous time of the year,” many of my clients report fears of relapsing into old behaviors used to cope with their experience of stress during this season. Causes for that stress can include being alone during holiday celebrations, financial strains, overwhelming social engagements, or other scenarios that break us from our day-to-day routines.
These stressors can lead to a trap of unhealthy self-soothing behaviors such as drug or alcohol abuse, emotional eating, self-harm, depression, or return to a toxic relationship. Tendencies like these are especially amplified this year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In my experience with dialectical behavior therapy, I have found that the practice of dialectical abstinence is extremely helpful in preventing unhealthy behaviors from resurfacing. This practice emphasizes the importance of both abstinence and harm reduction. Coupled together, these concepts create a pathway to both prevent and break free from addictive behaviors.
Abstinence involves recognizing the harm caused by the addictive behavior and vowing to never engage in it again. Similar to the 12-step recovery model, abstinence asks us to completely renounce the substance or behavior and stay away from the source of the addiction.
However, this process has its shortcomings, often induced by a perfectionist, “all-or-nothing” mindset. From my own experience with addiction, I can attest to the danger of becoming obsessed with the “day count,” or the number of days since the addiction last manifested. This obsession can cause individuals who have a lapse in their behavior to adopt a self-shaming mindset—even a small slip can feel like a failure. If the shame spiral intensifies, it becomes difficult for individuals to “get back on the wagon” and regain their previous determination to cut out the behavior or substance.
Where abstinence falls short, harm reduction gives individuals hope for regaining their initial goal. Harm reduction supports a peace of mind that lapses will occur, but that those lapses will not damage the entire recovery process. By giving us tools to minimize the damage of relapses, this skill also gives us the grace needed to “get back on the wagon” of abstinence and ultimately break free from addiction.
Though this skill can sometimes cause individuals to set the bar too low for themselves, pairing it with abstinence allows people to adopt a mindset of full commitment to their goal while preserving a sense of self-compassion. A comprehensive dialectical abstinence practice consists of several tools such as lifestyle changes, relationship reinforcements, and healthy ways of self-soothing that help us move between abstinence and harm reduction as skillfully as possible.
The thought of never using a certain substance again can be enough to send us into a relapse—”I’ll only do it once more since it’s going to be my last time ever.” Dialectical abstinence provides a way out of the all-or-nothing thinking and instead promotes balance, stability, and lifelong freedom from painful addictions.
There is hope for you this holiday season, both to prevent yourself from spiraling into old behaviors and to break free from behaviors that have been gripping you.