The holidays are upon us, and soon we’ll be surrounded by relatives and friends, stepping over gift-wrapping and raising a glass to celebrate the New Year.
It’s a tradition played out at home, in bars and at office parties from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. The multi-billion dollar distilled spirits industry makes more than 25 percent of its profits during this holiday season – the same time period when more people die in alcohol-related traffic accidents, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Researchers at the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers say that although the holiday season is a time to celebrate, these festivities are filled with triggers that can lead to binge-drinking and other alcohol-related problems. In 2012, the latest national statistics, one-quarter of people ages 18 or older reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month, with men consuming more than five drinks in two hours and women downing four drinks in the same time period.
And while some party-goers think that they can drink more beer and wine than hard alcohol before they get tipsy, how much you are drinking, rather than what you are drinking, is what really matters. A 12-ounce beer, five-ounce glass of wine and a shot of hard liquor all contain approximately the same amount of alcohol that an average adult can process in an hour.
During this time of year, researchers say, tradition, advertising, holiday decorated taverns, clinking glasses and high-octane laughter make it more difficult to pass-up the alcoholic toast, even for those who have given up booze.
“There are many parties during the holidays and there’s usually a lot of alcohol,” says Elizabeth Epstein, research professor at the center who works with alcohol-dependent people to recognize triggers that may make it hard for them to say no. “And on the flip side, for people who have a limited social network, the holidays can be an extremely lonely and sad time, leading to increased drinking or relapse to drinking alone to cope with bad feelings. For someone who is alcohol-dependent, the holidays can be extremely difficult.”
The stress of preparing meals and hosting relatives, the open bar at the office party, the spiked eggnog and so on might not seem like much to someone who is not battling alcoholism. But to those who are trying to stay sober, Epstein advises them to focus on the food, holiday spirit, and company instead of the bar, and to nurse non-alcoholic beverages during these holiday gatherings. She says people who don’t want to drink alcohol need to be pleasant but assertive, telling the jovial but insistent party host no thank you to that holiday cocktail. Or, she says, avoid alcohol-laden gatherings if you need to protect your sobriety.
For those who rarely drink but say yes during the holidays, Epstein and her colleagues suggest eating before a night out, keeping to one drink per hour, drinking a non-alcoholic beverage between drinks, knowing when to stop and making sure to have a designated driver.
“Keep in mind that the more you drink, the worse your judgment is,” Epstein says. “Don’t trust yourself to get it right after you’ve been drinking even one or two drinks.”