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How to manage when, if or how much you'll drink this holiday season


It's the time of year for celebrations, but the holidays are also a season when alcohol can be a problem. So as you prepare to head out to parties and family gatherings where people will be drinking, NPR's addiction correspondent Brian Mann has a few tips for staying safe and healthy.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: I want to promise right up front, this isn't a finger-wagging, scoldy (ph) sort of conversation. Experts say most of us will do just fine with our drinking through Christmas and New Year's. But it is important to keep in mind - alcohol can be risky for some people. Here's Kim Kearns.

KIM KEARNS: I did not go out and not drink. I drank all the time with friends.

MANN: Kearns is 39, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Massachusetts. For years, she says, the holidays felt like a slippery slope.

KEARNS: This is the time of year. This is when everybody's drinking. You know, oh, we're decorating the Christmas tree even though it's 11 a.m. I think this deserves mimosas.

MANN: Last year, she says things got out of control. She scared herself drinking too much. All the experts I talked to agree the holidays are a time when alcohol can trip people up. Part of it, like Kearns says, is the fact that it's just everywhere. Alcohol is tangled up in a lot of the rituals we love. The doctor Anna Lembke, a researcher at Stanford University, says the holidays also leave some of us more vulnerable.

ANNA LEMBKE: The holidays are often a time of great expectations, which can be disappointed when things don't go according to how we envision that they could go or should go. And although we can love our families and friends, getting together can be stressful.

MANN: So that's the first thing to be aware of, just the simple fact - in the next few weeks, some of us may be more prone to risky or problem drinking as a way to cope with stress. The experts I talked to offered some red flags to watch out for and also some simple strategies to stay healthy. The first suggestion from Anna Lembke is to have a good idea how much alcohol is safe.

LEMBKE: Folks who are worried about their use but want to continue to drink should keep careful track.

MANN: According to Lembke, three alcoholic drinks in a day and seven drinks in an entire week - that's considered safe for women. For most men, it's a little more - four drinks in a day and 14 drinks spread over an entire week. Stray over those numbers and that's maybe a red flag. The next thing experts say we should all be ready for is pressure from friends and family to keep drinking past healthy limits. Dr. Tyler Oesterle is at the Mayo Clinic. He says resisting pressure to drink can mean more conflict, more stress. One good strategy, he says, is to have a script in mind.

TYLER OESTERLE: So when, you know, your favorite aunt offers you a glass of wine and you decided not to drink wine that evening, have something prepared.

MANN: The statement can be as simple as no, thank you, I'm not drinking or I've had enough. Another important strategy is to consider not going to that party at all. David Dorschu runs an addiction treatment program in New Jersey.

DAVID DORSCHU: Keeping yourself in a safe place is the priority. And perhaps next year you can go to Aunt Mary's.

MANN: There is another side to this whole holiday drinking thing and that's how the host behaves. Dorschu says it's important that guests feel welcome and included, even if they're only drinking a little or abstaining altogether.

DORSCHU: You have, you know, other options for folks that are non-alcoholic, number one. But number two, you're creating an atmosphere where people feel comfortable to decline and to say, you know, no, thank you.

MANN: Kim Kearns in Massachusetts says after last year's holidays, she chose to do this season alcohol-free.

KEARNS: A huge amount of fear in facing the social scene, all my friends.

MANN: Kearns says she talked with her husband and let a few key friends know about her choice. She also looked for ways to lower holiday stress that don't involve a glass of wine or a cocktail.

KEARNS: I felt like I went into the holidays this year with a plan. I felt like I had this toolbox.

MANN: Kearns says her best tips are to go for a walk or exercise or just take a break from friends and family.

Brian Mann, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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