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Digital Detox: unwrapping the link between social media and alcohol addiction in the countdown to Christmas

Two addiction experts share how social media and ‘influencers’  can make the festive period challenging for those with alcohol addiction – and anyone trying to go ‘no or low alcohol’ - and what to do about it

At Christmas and New Year, a surge in the number of alcohol-related endorsements on social media is difficult to avoid. Although advertising regulations are clear; “Marketing communications must be socially responsible and contain nothing that is likely to lead people to adopt styles of drinking that are unwise”, the implicit messages are obvious: drinking freely is part and parcel of the festive season.

For those concerned about the ubiquitous presence of alcohol at work events, end-of-year awards, friendly gatherings, family reunions and on social media, Pamela Roberts, addictions programme manager at the Priory’s Hospital in Woking, says; “Constant exposure to advertisements, pictures or social media posts glamorising  alcohol  can be wearing, emotionally and physically, especially for those struggling with addiction, for whom it  can require a concerted effort to keep in touch with the support networks that help them maintain their recovery.”

Many people will inevitably find themselves at events where alcohol cannot be avoided.

Pamela says; “It is impossible to escape every advert, post or picture that involves alcohol during the festive season. This means that recovering addicts may need to invest more time in pursuing their recovery. This can be in the form of talking with peers, if feeling triggered, or attending support groups.”

To help with this, The Priory Hospital Woking’s Addiction Treatment Programme (ATP) offers its patients aftercare support sessions on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve to allow those recovering from addictions a time and place to talk about the tensions or temptations experienced at this time of year.

Whilst not underestimating how hard it is, Pamela emphasises that abstinence from alcohol during the Christmas period should not always be thought of as a negative or an ‘impossible dream’. Instead, she suggests continually reminding yourself of the positive impact of abstaining, such as how it reduces harm to yourself and others in the long-term.

“For an alcoholic in recovery, abstinence is essential, and the risks of relapse are ever present. When committed to a ’recovery lifestyle’, increased exposure to temptation, say from engagement with social media, can be extremely tough and can feel very negative. But, social media can also be a positive, helpful, and convenient way of keeping in contact with peers who are in a similar situation, especially during days spent with family or if you’re away from home.

“There is a growing sobriety movement, on platforms such as Instagram, that can be encouraging and engaging. By following the ‘right’ people, you will quickly realise you are not alone and that many others are facing the same struggles as you. In fact, others will have overcome those struggles and learned to love Christmas again, maybe exploring the extensive range of so-called ‘no and low’ drinks that are now a popular feature on the party scene.”

She adds; “Increasingly, my patients are becoming part of online community groups where they can access instant responses, advice and support if they experience cravings or temptation. Thanks to the immediacy of social media, a ‘recovery’ friend can help you talk things through together, whenever or wherever you need it.”

Jeff van Reenen, addiction treatment programme manager at the Priory’s Hospital in Chelmsford, agrees that Christmas can make it much harder for recovering alcoholics to stay on track.

“Prolific marketing and promotions which glamorise and normalise copious drinking, as well as the price cutting of products, are huge triggers - especially for those in early recovery from alcoholism. I’m also concerned by the images and ‘perfect’ lifestyles portrayed on social media.  It is often impossible to overlook these posts if one is using digital technologies – and especially if using social media prolifically. 

“At the Priory’s Hospital in Chelmsford we  incorporate a complete digital detox programme into our programme of recovery in order to allow our patients ‘time out’ from the all-consuming  nature of social and online media – especially if they have tendencies to be addicted to this, or cross addicted, that is, replacing the one addiction, alcohol. with another, such as social media.”

To help those struggling to avoid alcohol during the festive season, Priory suggests practical tips:

  • Recognise your triggers

Whether your triggers are stress, frustration, fear, anxiety, depression or ‘environmental’ triggers like people and places, stay mindful. Ensure that you prioritise your self-care.

  • Use your support network

If you are an addict, your family, friends and fellowship peers all want you to get through this holiday season without alcohol, so let them help you. When attending events, take a buddy who will help you stay away from alcohol. Make a list of people you can call, including your ‘sponsor’; keep your list with you at all times, and call at least one person a day.

  • Be realistic

It’s important to have a realistic attitude about the potential for anxiety or conflict during the holiday season. The tension between the reality of situations and our idealised images of holiday harmony can lead to anxiety – so be realistic about how the season could increase your anxiety and stress and how you’re going to access support, should you need it.

  • Don’t follow the crowd – ‘follow’ wisely

If you find you’re following friends or influencers who taunt you with temptation, then simply, unfollow. Explore other accounts and threads which will encourage and inspire you and reaffirm the many positives of living without alcohol – not just for Christmas but for life. Be #sobercurious

  • Live one day at a time and learn to embrace your sobriety

Stay in the moment and live one day at a time. Don’t worry about what’s happened in the past or what could happen on your journey of recovery. Enjoy today. Live for today. Celebrate your sobriety.

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