Alcohol's busiest season in here: How to avoid binge drinking and support sober loved ones

  • The holidays can be difficult for people who are recovering from alcohol misuse or addiction.
  • Experts say those who want to refrain from drinking can create exit plans to leave holiday events, or bring friends to help.
  • In order to help loved ones who aren't drinking, non-alcoholic drinks are an option, as well as nixing alcohol altogether if they request it.

The holiday season brings a lot of joy, stress and for some, an unhealthy temptation to drink – a lot. 

While some people drink to celebrate, others drink because it helps them feel less depressed, less alone, or less bored, said Thomas Britton, CEO and board member at American Addiction Centers.

Holidays, he said, can also lead to increases in stress, isolation, and depression, causing more alcohol poisonings, binge drinking, car accidents, and other adverse effects of large amounts of drinking.

But Britton and other experts say there are healthy ways to handle these stressors during the holiday season, including inviting a buddy along to celebrate with you and having an exit strategy in case things get too tempting.

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First, what's a standard drink?

George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, recommends people familiarize themselves with standard drinks. 

Typically, a standard drink is 12 ounces of beer with 5% alcohol, 5 ounces of wine with 12% alcohol, or 1½ ounces of a distilled beverage.

How much alcohol is too much?

Koob said the USDA recommends no more than two alcoholic drinks per day for males and one per day for females. That's about 7 or 14 per week.

"That doesn't mean you have them all at the party and in a two-hour period," he told USA TODAY.

Drinking is the leading cause of substance abuse in the U.S., said Britton, from American Addiction Centers.

Britton said one-sixth of the population binge drinks and about 25% of binge drinkers do it weekly.

The CDC defines binge drinking as consuming five or more drinks on an occasion for men or four or more drinks on an occasion for women. Heavy drinking equals eight or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more drinks per week for men, the CDC says.

And while most people who binge drink do not have a severe alcohol use disorder, binge drinking is associated with an increased risk of alcohol use disorder, the CDC says.

"There's significant medical risk and safety risks to binge drinking," said Britton. "Holiday times, both in parties or in isolation, can trigger that ... And one thing we know is that during the pandemic, isolation has been a massive, massive issue for people."

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Does alcohol consumption increase during the holidays?

Koob said alcohol sales peak between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day and people consume more around that time.

One of the biggest factors leading to excessive drinking is negative emotional states, he said. While holidays can be fun, being around family members and certain environments can trigger negative emotions.

People often use for a reason too, said Britton, from American Addiction Centers.

"It does something for them," he said. "It'll help with some of the traumatic stuff that people carry ... Many people have issues with their families (and) dynamics that are difficult for them. Being around those families, drinking can be an adaptive strategy to get through it."

What should I do if I don't want to drink for the holidays? 'Have an escape plan'

The most important thing a person can do if they want to stop drinking alcohol is reach out for help or treatment, said Britton. The second thing they can do is plan where they'll spend the holidays.

"Is this a space that creates problems for me?" they can ask themselves.

If there's a New Year's Eve party where friends plan to drink tons of alcohol, it's probably not the best choice, Britton said.

"I can either ask my family not to drink and see if they would honor that or I can choose to go somewhere with other people that are trying not to drink," he said.

It also helps to take a friend or someone else who is in recovery. 

You can also take a walk or leave the event, said Koob, from the NIAAA. And while people shouldn't need an excuse to leave, they can say they're not feeling well.

"You have to have an escape plan," Koob said.

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Another effect of holiday drinking: Holiday heart syndrome

In addition to car crashes and DUIs, excessive alcohol consumption can also lead to a condition called holiday heart syndrome, researchers say.

The term "holiday heart syndrome" was first coined in 1978. It occurs when healthy people without heart disease experience arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat after binge drinking.

The researchers who coined the term said the irregularities subsided once those involved stopped drinking.

While the palpitations were also more frequent after weekends or holidays like Christmas or New Year’s Eve, later studies showed the association between irregular heartbeat and recent alcohol intake wasn't always significant.

Lastly, researchers say complications of holiday heart syndrome include new or worsening heart failure, life-threatening arrhythmias, community-acquired pneumonia and death.

How to support sober loved ones during the holiday season

Experts say there are ways to help loved ones who don't drink, like having non-alcoholic drink options.

"The average person doesn't have a problem with alcohol, so the average person won't really miss having alcohol," Britton said.

And there's a movement of sorts among people in the 18 to 30 age group that's moving purposely to not drinking. The movement has led to the creation of more non-alcoholic drinks such as mocktinis or mocktails.

And when in doubt, it never hurts to simply ask loved ones how to support them, Britton said.

Questions you can ask loved ones who don't drink or who struggle with drinking include:

  • How are you doing with this?
  • How can I support you with this?
  • Is there anything I can do?

"As a culture, we're often less comfortable in asking difficult questions," he said. "If you love somebody, you share your concern for them."

There are also things to avoid when celebrating with people who don't drink alcohol, said Koob from the NIAAA.

Don't push, he said, and steer clear of saying things like "How come you're not having a drink?" or "Join us!"

And it's OK to keep an eye on them and be "socially acute," Koob said.

"You don't want to leave them in the corner by themselves where everybody else is toasting," he said. "They should be included in the celebration but they don't have to drink."

And for those struggling with drinking, experts say there are virtual communities, secular groups and groups within churches to check out for support.

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Saleen Martin is a reporter on USA TODAY's NOW team. She is from Norfolk, Virginia – the 757 – and loves all things horror, witches, Christmas, and food. Follow her on Twitter at @Saleen_Martin or email her at