The Bermuda Triangle of recovery often refers to the three major holidays that occur this time of year. This includes Thanksgiving, Christmas/Hanukkah, and New Year’s. It is called the Bermuda Triangle of recovery in recovering communities because this is the time of year that many people get stressed out and fall back into old habits. Others may drift into depression, anxiety or re-engage in past unhealthy behaviors. It can be an exceedingly hard six weeks to navigate, but not by accident.

What is Recovery?

Before we go further, let us define recovery. Recovery refers to any person doing anything to actively pursue a new way of being in the world in direct relation to their addictions, mental health, or other personal struggles. A lot of people refer to this as working a program or self-improvement. The program people identify as working is not important. The idea that they are actively trying to change their lives with some outside help is what is important. Let us also not forget that addiction does not have to include chemicals (alcohol, heroin, etc.), it can also include processes (Gambling, shopping, working), but more on this next month.

Stress and Cortisol

To understand this phenomenon, we first need to look at stress. On an average day, stress is the number one cause of relapse among people in recovery, not the only cause, but the number one cause. The number one cause of stress is the unknown. When we become stressed, our body produces the hormone Cortisol. Cortisol works fantastically in the short-term, when it combines with Adrenaline, and we need to survive a threat for the next 15 seconds. However, Cortisol in the long-term is a neurotoxin. Cortisol has been shown to reduce brain mass and will even erode neural pathways. Some of the pathways that become dissolved are the pathways we need to help ourselves self-regulate.

Why is this important? I thought we were talking about the Bermuda Triangle!

We are and we will.

High levels of Cortisol are present in most people who suffer from addiction and mental health-related disorders. The reason this is true is that the vast majority (if not all) people with these disorders have experienced some level of trauma. Think Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  And trauma, especially unresolved trauma,  is responsible for keeping Cortisol production high. Many studies show the direct correlation between Cortisol and any number of health issues, such as Anxiety, Depression, Addiction, Sleep Disorders, Impaired Memory, Impaired Concentration, Headache, Heart Disease, Weight Fluctuation, and certain types of Cancers. The problem is that these conditions fold back into and onto one another, creating a cyclical pattern of continued Cortisol production. Thereby, they become symbiotic and synergistic. The individual suffering from these conditions often cannot see a way to navigate out of the cyclical nature of these conditions.

So, how does all of this relate to navigating the Bermuda Triangle of recovery?

No matter how well adapted you are at mitigating stress, you will more than likely have an elevated level of stress during this time of year: Family obligations, schedules, travel plans, appeasing divorced parents, financial circumstances, cooking, shopping, social duties, boundary-setting/inability to say no, party invitations, drinking and using friends and family, isolation, checking delivery status updates, comparing ourselves to others via social media, all the way down to the perfect place setting and centerpiece. Let us not forget that we are now trying to make all this work in the middle of a pandemic, no less!

All of these conditions create the recipe for a heightened state of emotional dysregulation. We generally tend to stretch ourselves thin even when we are trying to be healthier and more aware during this time of year.  For a lot of people, the holidays conjure images of togetherness, connections, family bonding, merriment, and joy. While some of this may be true for people in recovery and probably is true for people in long-term recovery or remission, most have grown up in dysfunctional families. There are often painful memories attached to these times of the year, such as unmet obligations, broken promises, domestic abuse, missed or ruined dinners, hungover dinners, or mourning the loss of loved ones. Others may have experienced neglect or abuse at the hands of family members. For them, the holidays present a significant set of additional challenges to their emotional well-being and recovery. Again, the basic idea here is the holidays can be difficult for a myriad of reasons. However, you can navigate it and possibly even have a little peace and joy.

Here are some ideas:

Double Up:

If you are already doing things to help reduce stress and anxiety, try doubling up. If you are meditating for 10 minutes in the morning, try 20 minutes or an additional 10 minutes in the evening. The same goes for working out; try to add a walk in the evening or morning. If you are seeing a therapist, look into adding a session or two during this time. Increase 12-step meeting attendance or support group attendance. Add minutes to your massage. Add a pedicure to your manicure. Try a float tank. You get the gist.

Create New Traditions

If you are working on healing, start to create some healthy new traditions. Start a cookie day and invite people who are safe and significant to you. Have a pre-or post-holiday meal with people you want to be around and have everyone bring left-overs or a favorite dish. Do something fun. Go ice skating, even if you don’t know-how. Have your own Grinchmas or Festivus and invite like-minded friends.


Being of service to others/getting out of ourselves to help others is a quick way to change our viewpoint and our mood. Doing things for others can be extremely rewarding. There are ample opportunities during this time of the year.

Gratitude List/journaling

A gratitude list can and should become more than a shopping list of things we “should” feel good about. Gratitude journaling has been shown to help induce mental wellness. Check out the roam podcast for more on gratitude journaling and flow.



Don’t Go Alone

If you must go to a family event or social gathering, take someone safe with you if possible. If not, alert a supportive friend or 12-step sponsor that you may be calling during this time for support.

Don’t Stay

You do not have to stay to the end of the event. This is typically when people tend to be the most intoxicated. Give yourself permission to leave early. If you need to, set a time limit for yourself and stick to it.

Carry A Mocktail

Sometimes it is helpful to ask for cranberry and sprite with an orange slice or some other garnished drink if you are at an event with a bar. With “sober curious” becoming more and more popular, bartenders aren’t thinking twice about making mocktails and may even have some tasty ideas to try. Check out the trend here.  A mocktail can also help to deter people from asking to get you a drink and may ease your anxiety about not drinking. The big secret is that most people at the party are not paying attention to your drink. Check out the list of mocktails here.

Speech Prep

Rehearse what you are going to say to people if you need to. Whether you are open about your recovery or preparing to be asked why you are not drinking, be prepared. If you feel you may be pressured to drink,  a simple line that works well and that gets little pushback is to tell people you are taking medication that you can’t drink on while taking it.

Have an Exit Strategy

If things get too uncomfortable permit, yourself to leave. Always try to bring your car if you can or have a ride-share app ready to go.


Physical and Emotional

Emotional Check In

Periodically check in on your emotional state. If you feel like emotions are running high, allow yourself time to process them instead of reacting to them, hiding from them or anesthetizing them. Find some safe space to do this or check-in with someone you feel safe around.


Mindfulness can be as simple as catching yourself traveling too far in the past or future and then taking a deep mindful breath while paying attention to your body.  Breathing in for six seconds and out for six seconds can lower blood pressure and heart rate. And a deep diaphragmatic belly breath will engage your parasympathetic nervous system to override your fight or flight response, you can utilize these techniques in a room full of people. However, if you need to dip outside or to the bathroom, that is o.k. too.


This seems simple, and it is, but most of us tend to forget and you already need to drink more water right now!


If you do not have a sleep schedule, get one. Sleep hygiene is a tremendous component to our recovery and mental wellness (more on this later).


There is an adage: move a muscle, change a thought. Movement is key in changing our brain state and thought process. If you are feeling stuck or frustrated, go for a walk, hit the gym, do some yoga, or look up an at home workout on your phone. Just don’t overcomplicate it. You don’t need to join a gym to get movement; Doing laundry, making a meal or going for a drive works too.


If you must travel this holiday season, make a plan and stick to it. Check local meetings in the area you are traveling to. Hitting different meetings while traveling can be fun. You get to see how different meetings are in different areas (Beach meetings, for those of us stuck in the Midwest, are awesome). There are plenty of apps to help you with this too. Check out Meeting

Guide for aa meetings AA ,


Meeting search for NA,


or Pink Cloud for all recovery meetings. They currently have meetings listed for AA, NA, CMA, and Al-Anon. Pink Cloud has a reasonable pay version as well as the free app.

Additionally, various cities have begun to have their own apps and google has implemented a 12-step recovery search on maps, “meetings near me.” So you may want to do a little research when you get there. South Florida AA meetings is one of the coolest local apps I’ve come across.

If you are going to be remote or rural, take your reading material, download some speakers from YouTube and hit some virtual meetings.

Recovery can be difficult work anytime of the year, not to mention that we are in the middle of a pandemic. If you feel that it is a little more difficult than normal during this time of year, you are not alone. Reach out, ask for help, be present, stay connected, celebrate the small things, keep it simple and be gentle with yourself. This is even more relevant if you are new to the program and going through your first holidays (the Bermuda Triangle) sober. Your recovery is important, because you are important and you are worthy of joy this time of year!


David Vail is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and founder of Thrive Center for Wellness. His main focus is on helping people navigate mental health and addictions by working compassionately with each individual. David is in long-term recovery from addiction and advocates to help end the stigma of addiction. His specialty is adolescents.

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