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You don't have to drink to celebrate the holiday season

Becky Harlan/NPR

The holiday season is upon us, meaning it's time to reflect on another pandemic year — and raise our glasses to celebrate the big and small joys that have kept us going.

Drinking has been a big part of winter holiday celebrations for nearly thousands of years. "It's been around for a long time, and since the beginning of time, there have also been people who have not been able to use alcohol in moderation," says Dr. Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist at Stanford University and the author of Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Abundance.

Lembke and other experts say most people who drink alcohol over the next few weeks, with family, at office parties, on New Year's Eve, will be just fine. But they also point out that this can be a uniquely risky time of year for some alcohol consumers.

If you think alcohol is problematic for you, or want to avoid drinking too much during the holidays, or just aren't the biggest drinker, here are some strategies for navigating end-of-year celebrations.

Remember, the holidays can be a slippery slope

Our experts generally agree that risky and potentially problematic drinking increases this time of year, sometimes with long-term health consequences.

"Around Thanksgiving, I always gave myself this excuse that it was the holidays, and I'd always say, 'This is the time of year. This is when everybody's drinking,'" says Kim Kearns, a stay-at-home mom in Massachusetts who writes about her recovery from alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol is tangled up in many holiday rituals we love. But the shorter days, the colder weather and overwhelming social calendars can also leave some of us feeling more vulnerable. Or if you're spending the end-of-year away from loved ones, you may be tempted to stock up on alcohol.

"Holidays are a time of great expectations, which can be [disappointing] when things don't go according to how we envision they should go," says Lembke. "And although we can love our families and friends, getting together can be stressful."

So if you're feeling the holiday blues, remind yourself that with the joy and warmth of the season comes an increased temptation to drink more as a way to cope with social anxieties.

Keep track of how much you drink

To keep from slipping into risky behavior, experts say it's a good idea to keep an eye on your alcohol consumption — not just on one given night or at a single party but over the course of each week.

According to Lembke, a safe and realistic drinking limit to keep in mind is three drinks in a day and seven drinks in a week for women. For men, it's more: Four drinks in a day and 14 drinks in a week.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends even less for a healthier lifestyle: One drink or less in a day and seven drinks in a week for women, and two drinks in a day and 14 drinks in a week for men. This all, of course, varies for every person.

"Quantity and frequency matter," Lembke says. "We measure a standard drink as either one 12 ounce [beer], one 5 ounce glass of wine or 1 to 1 ½ ounce of hard liquor."

Many of the people NPR heard from also suggested having a friend, partner or spouse help keep track of drinking behavior.

And remember, drinking even less alcohol, or abstaining altogether, is widely considered the healthiest option.

Be ready to resist the pressure to drink

Another challenge experts say we should be prepared for are steady nudges from our loved ones to keep drinking past our healthy limits.

"I felt a huge amount of fear in facing the social scene and all my friends," says Kim Kearns who has given up alcohol altogether.

Dr. Tyler Oesterle, who is the medical director at the Mayo Clinic's Fountain Center, says this unaddressed pressure to drink can result in awkward conversations and even conflict among loved ones.

One strategy Oesterle offers is having a scripted response in mind. "So when your favorite aunt offers you a glass of wine and you've decided not to have wine that evening, [you] have something prepared [to say]."

Your response can be as simples as "No thank you. I'm not drinking tonight." Or: "I'm good. I've been drinking too much lately."

Or: If you want to avoid the "Where's your drink?" question altogether, you can also carry around a cup of a non-alcoholic beverage like soda, seltzer or even water.

You can always opt out

It isn't easy to say "no" to loved ones and stay home during the holidays, but experts say another important strategy for healthy drinking – particularly for those who prefer abstinence – is not going to that party at all.

"Keeping yourself in a safe place is the priority," says David Dorschu, who heads Recovery Centers of America, an addiction treatment program in New Jersey.

You can instead make plans that don't involve alcohol, like watching a movie or grabbing coffee with a friend, if being social still sounds appealing.

Kim Kearns says she went into this year's holiday season with a plan that includes stepping away from gatherings when they become overwhelming. "I go for a walk. I write. I take breaks for myself to do the things that help me relax."

Remember, you don't owe anyone a drink, and it's okay to turn down that invite and make time for yourself.

Support those who want to drink less

Even if you don't struggle with alcohol, you can support those that want to drink less or the non-drinkers in your life this season.

When it comes to holiday parties, make sure drinking feels like a choice and not an obligation. Try to make everyone feel welcome, even if they're only drinking a little or abstaining altogether.

"Whether that be a company holiday party or a family function, you have to have options for folks [to drink] that are non-alcoholic, that's number one," says Dorschu. "Number two, you're creating an atmosphere where people feel comfortable to decline and say, 'No thank you.'"

Oesterle says it helps for hosts to let go of gestures of hospitality — Can I get you a drink? Want another beer? — that once seemed warm and inviting but can pressure guests to grab an unwanted drink.

There can even be a fun side to downsizing alcohol consumption during the holidays — Lembke says some hosts are offering fancy, celebratory drinks that aren't alcoholic.

"It's something to look forward to," she says. "They want to find ways to reward themselves and celebrate without having an alcoholic drink."

A version of this story originally aired on NPR's All Things Considered.

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Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.