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Navigating your relationship with alcohol: Dealing with urges and cravings over the holidays

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Our understanding of alcohol and its effects – especially its long-term physical effects – is evolving, and many of us may be reconsidering our relationship with drinking.

Changing your relationship with alcohol can be challenging, particularly over the holidays. Depending on whether and what you celebrate, alcohol may be baked in (sometimes literally!) to the various festivities and traditions. There may be a million reminders or cues that make you think about or even crave a drink.

Whether you’re trying to abstain from drinking, set limits on drinking, or shift your patterns of drinking, let’s look at how you can navigate your relationship with alcohol and deal with cravings over the holidays.

Figure out the why: Identify triggers
Part of what can make any holiday a difficult time for managing your relationship with alcohol and dealing with cravings is that there are often many more triggers in your environment. Understanding your own personal triggers – the things that make you feel the urge to drink – can help you plan ahead and decide how you want to deal with them.

For example, research suggests that we tend to drink to get good things and avoid bad ones. In general, we might drink:

  • to enhance the physical or emotional pleasure we feel (e.g., excitement, happiness, contentment),
  • to bond with other people or make social interactions or gatherings smoother or more fun,
  • to cope with or reduce physical or emotional pain (e.g., anxiety, pain, stress), and
  • to fit in with and avoid rejection from other people.

So, to identify your own triggers, think about what your why is for drinking – what kinds of things motivate you most to drink and when – and make a list of the specific people, places, thoughts, memories, and feelings that might bring up the urge to drink.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • Family dinner when extended family ask critical questions about my work/relationships
  • Feeling lonely when other people are out celebrating and I’m at home alone
  • Hanging out with the fun cousins
  • Thinking about Mom not being here

Figure out the how: Make a plan
Once you have a sense of what kinds of things might trigger urges to drink, sit down and think about how you want to deal with them. It can be hard to resist urges in the moment, so it’s helpful to make a plan in advance.

Here are a few strategies you can try when you’re planning how you’ll deal with urges to drink:

  • Get away. Put some distance between you and whatever is triggering the urge to drink. If all the alcohol is in the kitchen, move to the living room. If the get-together is meant to be at the bar, suggest a restaurant or someone’s place, or sit in a chair facing away from the bottles and taps. Even just the act of trying to move away from the cue or trigger can lessen the urge because your mind is focusing on something else.
  • Give it time. Most urges and cravings tend to pass if you don’t focus on them and given enough time and distance away from the cue or trigger. They come like waves – they start, reach an intense peak, then come back down. Breathe and ride it out – it will pass.
  • Grab a substitute. Plan alternative behaviors to distract yourself and shift your attention away from the trigger and the urge. For example, instead of drinking alcohol:
    • Drink a fizzy non-alcoholic drink
    • Do 15 minutes of exercise (Exercise releases endorphins, which can help you feel better, and it can make you focus on physical sensations other than the urge to drink)
    • Talk to a friend
    • Listen to music
    • Go for a drive or a bus ride
  • Practice refusals. It can be hard, if you’re trying to set limits or reduce your alcohol intake, to think of how to turn down a drink in the moment. So, come up with a couple of stock refusals in advance, and practice them. That way, they’re ready to go in the moment and you don’t even have to think about it.

A couple of notes: First, sometimes the urge to drink can pop up unexpectedly. Things you think will trigger you might not, and things you would never think would trigger you, might. Try to be flexible and expect the unexpected – it can be handy to have a general plan for those instances, too.

Second, dealing with urges may take some trial-and-error. Be patient and gentle with yourself if and when your plans and intentions for eliminating or setting limits on your drinking fall through – just dust yourself off, regroup, and try again.

And finally, if you want help navigating your relationship with alcohol, reach out to our therapists whenever you need a hand.


  • Paradis, C., Butt, P., Shield, K., Poole, N., Wells, S., Naimi, T., Sherk, A., & the Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines Scientific Expert Panels. (2022). Update of Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines: Final Report for Public Consultation. Ottawa, Ont.: Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. https://ccsa.ca/sites/default/files/2022-08/CCSA-LRDG-Update-of-Canada%27s-LRDG-Final-report-for-public-consultation-en.pdf
  • Piasecki, T. M., Cooper, M. L., Wood, P. K., Sher, K. J., Shiffman, S., & Heath, A. C. (2014). Dispositional drinking motives: associations with appraised alcohol effects and alcohol consumption in an ecological momentary assessment investigation. Psychological Assessment, 26(2), 363-369.

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