Navigating social events while staying sober can be tough, especially if you’re newly sober and particularly in a culture where drinking is pervasive, like Australia. But, with a few evidence-based cognitive and behavioural techniques, some preparation, and solid support, we can make social engagements low-stress and low-risk.
Preparing ourselves mentally
One day at a time
If you’re dealing with anxiety before an event, remember that taking it one day at a time is a core part of recovery and the 12-step process. Focus on staying sober for today and for the event, rather than worrying about the future or dwelling on the past.
Rehearse your ‘no’
If you’re heading into a situation where you know you may be offered drinks or drugs, think about how you’re going to say no. An outright “no thanks” can work, but you may also want to consider other options:
“I’m taking a break from drinking/drugs for a while.”
“Thanks for the offer, but I’m not drinking tonight.”
“I think I’ll stick with water / pepsi / ginger beer.”
“No thanks, I’m having a quiet one tonight.”
Visualisation can be an effective tool. We might take a moment to picture ourselves confidently saying “no” and enjoying the event without the need for alcohol or substances.
Remember, we don’t owe anyone an explanation for why we’re choosing not to drink or do drugs. If someone continues to pressure you, simply repeating your refusal can be an effective way of asserting your boundaries.
We should accept that we may encounter moments that are annoying or awkward or stressful and know that it’s a fleeting moment and it will pass.
Set clear boundaries
Setting clear boundaries helps us feel more confident and in control of our choices, and the first person you have to set boundaries with is yourself.
Be clear that you will decline substances if offered and think about your threshold for the type of activity you want to be around. It could be that you plan to leave gracefully as soon as substances come out, when people become visibly intoxicated, or at a specific time in the evening.
Communicate with allies, ask for support
Having a supportive social network can make a big difference in staying sober. Communicating to trusted friends or family members ahead of time that we will be staying sober can help us feel supported at an event and be a means of holding ourselves accountable.
We shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help and support at events, especially early on in our sobriety. We might also share our boundaries ahead of time, including when we want to head for the doors.
If you have a sponsor, you should also let them know what you’re facing or how you’re feeling. They may have insights, anecdotes or advice that can help you navigate the situation and feel more at ease. Attending a meeting before or after an event can also help us keep ourselves accountable and provide additional support.
Be aware of negative self-talk
Social events early in sobriety can be anxiety-provoking, especially if we’re worried about presenting our “sober selves” to old friends.
Be aware of reinforcing negative self-talk:
“I won’t be able to have fun without drinking or using drugs.”
“People will judge me or think I’m boring or judgmental.”
“This is going to be challenging, stressful and I’ll probably fail.”
It’s important to challenge irrational thoughts like this. Are we mind-reading, filtering for only negative information, being egocentric or engaging in all-or-nothing thinking? Are we jumping to conclusions, letting emotions lead our thinking, or setting ourselves up as fortune tellers?
Confronting negative thinking patterns ahead of time will set up for success.
Reframe with positive self-talk
If we’re experiencing negative-self talk, we can reframe with more balanced and rational thoughts. Spending a moment before or during an event to practice mindfulness and emotional awareness will help build resilience.
Some examples of more rational, helpful thoughts:
- I can enjoy social events without alcohol
- True friends will respect my choices
- My sobriety is more important than fitting in at one event
- I am strong enough to make my own choices
- I don’t owe anyone an explanation
- My boundaries deserve respect
Be aware of triggers, plan accordingly
Emotional triggers are situations or events that bring up intense and overwhelming feelings that may make us want to turn to alcohol or drugs to distract or self-soothe. It’s important to be aware of situations that might risk triggers, so we can avoid them, remove ourselves if we encounter them, and respond with resilience and mindfulness.
Triggers often stem from past experiences or traumas, causing our reactions to be disproportionate in the moment. By identifying triggers, we can better address underlying issues fuelling our behaviour, develop strategies to manage our reactions and avoid slipping into destructive patterns.
Think ahead of time about what potential triggers may be present and how you can distance yourselves from them. This can be especially important to consider in family gatherings.
Some Practical Tips
Bring your own drinks, fill your own cup
If you’re worried about being offered substances or feeling left out, consider bringing your own non-alcoholic drinks. If non-alcoholic drinks are on offer, make a beeline for juice, water or soft drink as soon as you arrive. This will ensure you have a full glass and don’t feel like you’re the odd one out.
Give yourself a break
Staying sober at social events may be stressful. Remember you can practice self-care even at a social event, which may look like going for a bathroom break, taking a walk for some fresh air, or practicing breathing exercises to stay grounded and centred.
Plan your exit strategies
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we may find ourselves in a situation that feels uncomfortable or triggering. Having an escape plan in place can help. This may involve arranging a trusted friend we can call if we need to leave early, arranging our own transportation to and from the event, or having a prepared excuse for why we may need to leave early.
Find other activities
Sometimes if social events are tightly centred around drinking or drug use, they just might not be for us anymore. Saying no to events like these is okay, and doesn’t signify the death of our social life.
Think creatively about alternate activities and events, and don’t be afraid to encourage friends and social networks to explore new activities which are less centred on substance use.
Seek professional support
If you really find yourself struggling to resist social pressure to drink or use drugs, don’t be afraid to talk about it and debrief with a therapist or addiction specialist. They may be able to help us develop personalized strategies to cope with social situations, resist social pressure and stay on the wagon.
Understand that social situations may be challenging at first, but with time, effort, and support, staying sober can become easier and more natural. Be kind and patient with yourself, practice self-compassion, celebrate small victories.
South Pacific Private recognises that recovery is a long-term process. We all face our ups and downs. Our world-class Transitions program is designed to support early stage recovery by providing clients with practical skills and strategies to navigate the challenges of sober living, maintain their sobriety, and build a fulfilling life in recovery.