The season to be jolly careful

More parties, more time with family and less time at work help make Christmas special, but these ingredients can also make it harder for anyone trying to rein in their eating, drinking or drug use.

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

Attendance at SMART groups - 24 in Sydney and about 100 throughout Australia - spikes at this time of year, Freeman says. It's not only the food, alcohol and partying that make people more vulnerable - the lack of structure during the holidays can be a 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 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, such as anxiety, depression and anger, which 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 10 years ago by the drug and alcohol unit at St Vincent's Hospital in Darlinghurst. Devised as an alternative to 12-step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, it's an independent, non-profit program. Anyone who has 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 dependence, not the food, drug or 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 adjusted with practical strategies to help people change their 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 strategy is to keep the Christmas connection short, such as telling the family 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,'' Freeman says. ''One option is to be up front and forewarn your host in advance.

With alcohol, it's best to abstain if you can't control it and to have a plan for not drinking. Bring your own non-alcoholic drinks, or make sure you always have a water nearby.

Meanwhile, if you're the one pouring drinks or serving pudding and someone declines, don't push it. ''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,'' Freeman says. ''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 The season to be jolly careful first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.