Beating cravings at Christmas

More parties, more time with family and less time at work help make Christmas special - but they can also be the same ingredients that make it harder for anyone trying to reign in their eating, drinking or drug use.

Christmas is traditionally a risky time for relapse, says Josette Freeman, co-ordinator of SMART Recovery, a program that helps people overcome addictive behaviour through community self-help groups and online resources on its website.

Attendance at SMART groups – 24 in Sydney and around 100 groups around Australia – spikes at this time of the year, says Freeman. It’s not just all the food, alcohol and partying that make people more vulnerable - the lack of structure that comes with holidays can present another challenge, as can family celebrations.

“What brings many of us undone over Christmas is that we keep clinging to our expectation that it will be a happy family time even though we know that Christmas can be difficult - so every year we’re disappointed,” she says.  “If there are family tensions, getting together at Christmas can stir up problems like anxiety, depression and anger that can underpin addiction and make it harder to stay in control.

“This is why SMART emphasises the importance of having a plan in place for coping during this period.”

Short for Self Management and Recovery Training, SMART was established ten years ago by the Drug and Alcohol Unit at St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst. Devised as an alternative to 12-step programs like Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s now an independent, non-profit charity. Anyone who needs help for problems with overeating, drug or alcohol abuse, gambling or even excessive internet use or shopping can turn up to a SMART meeting. The focus is on tackling the thinking that drives the dependence on the habit - not the food, the drug or the behaviour itself.

“We get people of all ages and all backgrounds, although most would probably be in their 30s and 40s,” says Freeman who facilitates the Darlinghurst meetings.

While the 12 Steps approach treats addiction as a disease, SMART sees it more as a problem with faulty thinking that can be helped with the use of practical strategies to help people change behaviour, cope with cravings and regain balance in their lives.

“With the holiday period, the key is having a plan for both avoiding trouble and for dealing with it if it comes along, rather than thinking ‘I’ll just see what happens’,” Freeman says. “If you don’t get on with your siblings or your mum, what’s your plan for avoiding trouble? Think about what the day might be like and be realistic– look at what has gone on in previous years.”

One way of coping might be to keep the Christmas connection short, like telling the family in advance that you’ll pop in after lunch with some presents or that you need to leave after lunch.

“If overeating is a problem and you’re eating at someone else’s house, anticipate that people will want to give you too much food. One option is to be upfront and forewarn your host in advance. Another is to invent an attack of gastro if you know that ‘I’ll just have a little’ won’t wash,’’ Freeman says.

With alcohol, the trick is not to drink at all if you can’t control it and to have a plan for not drinking – like bringing your own non-alcoholic drinks or ensuring you always have a water in your hand or close by.

Meanwhile if you’re the one pouring the drinks or serving the Christmas pud and someone says ‘no thanks’, resist saying ‘but it’s Christmas’.

“It may be no big deal for some people if they accept a chocolate that they don’t really want, but for someone who struggles with overeating, it is a big deal,” stresses Freeman. “We need to understand that for some people saying ‘no’ to food or a drink may have taken a lot of strength and we need to respect that.”

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This story Beating cravings at Christmas first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.