Psychologist's Tips On How To Avoid Stress Drinking This Holiday Season

Every time we turn on the car radio from Thanksgiving up through the end of the year, we're constantly being reminded that the holidays are "the most wonderful time of the year." No matter how we may wish to believe such a sweet sentiment, the sad truth is, this time of year definitely has its darker side –- and we're not just talking about how the sun seems to disappear around 4 p.m. According to American Addiction Centers, 'tis the season for an awful lot of binge drinking, even by people who ordinarily don't drink to excess. Oxygen takes us into even darker territory, noting that alcohol-fueled festivities are one of the factors contributing to a rise in crime during this not always wonderful time.

Mashed spoke with Dr. Nicole Avena, a research neuroscientist and addiction expert who's also authored a book called "What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler." (No rum balls or spiked eggnog for the junior set, needless to say!) Avena shared with us some of her insights on what drives people to overindulge in wassail (or other festive beverages) during the holiday season.

Why stress leads to excess alcohol consumption

The holidays often deliver a heaping helping of angst all tied up in tinsel. Shopping for presents –- paying for those presents! –- even simply wrapping those darn presents can be a hassle. There's also bound to be face time with relatives we usually avoid for good reason (and who are equally anxious to avoid us, if truth be told). Let's not even talk about those office parties, nor about having to hear Mariah Carey bellowing for the billionth time. The holiday stress is real, people! Many of us bring on even more stress, though, by adding boozy fuel to the fire.

As Dr. Avena says, "When people are stressed, they tend to drink more because alcohol causes higher amounts of cortisol and dopamine to be released that alters the brain's chemistry, shifting how the body reacts to hormonal balances." Specifically, she explains that "cortisol interacts with the brain's reward and pleasure system, contributing to alcohol's reinforcing effects." In layman's terms, we drink because it makes us feel good ... until it doesn't. Unfortunately, things can spiral out of control pretty quickly, since Avena adds that this feel-good effect "encourages people to consume more to achieve the same effects over time." What can make matters even worse is that you may be drinking on an empty stomach, since Avena points out that "When you are stressed, your mind is often preoccupied ... Therefore, you may not be too focused on your appetite."

Get on top of your holiday stress

The first step to managing your holiday drinking is to manage your holiday stress. Dr. Avena says that one important way to ward off potentially stressful situations is to keep to a schedule. Even if you will be taking a number of vacation days, try to keep to your regular routine as much as possible. "Staying on top of your sleep, meals, exercise, etc," Avena explains, "can help you feel more organized and feel like you may have more control over your stressors."

Another action you should take to ensure your peace of mind is to make sure you have a little alone time. You're not being rude, just following the doctor's orders -– Dr. Avena, that is. While she acknowledges that "sometimes during the holiday season, we are around our families for a long period of time," she advises, "Finding time for yourself can help decrease the holiday stress associated with being in a big group." Even if the only "me time" you can find is in the shower, make the most of it. Maybe you could also offer to go on a solo Starbucks run to bring everyone back a peppermint mocha (after you've taken the time to enjoy your own mocha all by yourself, of course).

Plan to drink (or not drink) responsibly

If you know you are going to be hoisting a few holiday beverages, Dr. Avena advises you map out a drinking game plan well in advance. She says it's best to outline how much you are going to drink on any given day, and then space those drinks out over the course of the occasion. Dr. Avena suggests staying hydrated by knocking back a cup of water after each alcoholic drink, and she also recommends you "opt for drinks that are not very strong." If you find yourself at a cash bar or preparing to host an event in which you're supplying the alcohol, Dr. Avena also suggests that you "only buy the amount of alcohol that fits your budget."

If you prefer not to drink, or to keep your booze consumption to a bare minimum, Avena tells us, "I think the best tip for this is to avoid people who are peer pressuring you into drinking. These are not the people to be around during the holidays." Instead, she says you should be spending time with those friends and family members who share or at least support your desire to cut out the booze, perhaps sharing some tasty, often underrated holiday mocktails. Avena says to stay far away from anyone who tries to sober-shame you. What's more, she doesn't feel there's any need for you to explain your reasons for not drinking, saying, "Keep in mind that this is a personal choice that does not require anyone else's input or approval."