JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Beating cravings at Christmas

Drink and be merry? "The key is having a plan for both avoiding trouble and for dealing with it", says Freeman.

Drink and be merry? "The key is having a plan for both avoiding trouble and for dealing with it", says Freeman.

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.”

For more information, go to


What's helped you stay in control over Christmas?

11 comments so far

  • Why you are even writing this article amazes me. Christmas IS that time of the year when you can let your hair down, be with family and friends, eat yourself into a coma and just wind down from the previous 12 months of being good.

    This article only makes people feel guilty and ashamed of being happy and feeling good.

    Come on, for just a short week at the end of the year let us be happy and enjoy all the food that we have, our family, and to remember we are fortunate to be able to do this.

    Date and time
    December 19, 2012, 12:47PM
    • Exactly!

      This is the time of year you eat too much, drink champagne for breakfast, etc etc.

      We're not allowed even a couple of days off?

      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 1:19PM
    • What is understandably difficult to grasp for someone who has not grappled with it personally, is that when your realationship with food is already disfuctional, eating yourself into a coma doen't make you feel satisfied and content, it is already associated with shame and guilt. because you know that it's not a one off, it's not a treat, it a symptom.

      In my experience, it's not a comfortable moment to publically share in the ritualistic and shamefilled gorging that would otherwise be hidden behind locked doors. Knowing that what is for others a once-a-year orgy of consumption, is sadly regular for you is far from pleasant.
      Even as I'm doing it, I'm aware of it and I know I'm not enjoying it, despite its delicious components and warm company. Why this consciousness is not present enough to rein in the horses, is still a mystery to me.

      So when I do make the resolution to say 'no' I am genuinely very thankful to the people who will just accept this and move on to the next person. To prodd with "but, it's Christmas!" can really shake a flimsy resolve. Although having said that, I know that individual responses and preferences can and do vary wildy.

      You wouldn't tell a smoker, "go on, it's just one" and it's important to remeber that the mentality is that same. The only difference being that you can't quit food cold turkey, if you'll pardon the pun.

      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 1:42PM
    • Jason, are you going to say "but its Christmas" to someone that is morbidly obese and needs to stick to the plan in order for them to make a change, and are you going to say "but its Christmas" to a recovering alcoholic that is trying to turn their life around.
      I think you've taken this article the wrong way, its about stategies to help people that want to change their behaviours.

      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 3:58PM
    • I hate the feeling of feeling so full (gorged) I'm uncomfortable. I try to avoid it and so I try not to have seconds, let alone thirds. It can be hard to resist urging (like from my mum) to "Go on, have another one, it's Christmas!). I wish she wouldn't do it. I can have another one in an hour or two when I don't feel so full any more.

      mum loves feeding us
      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 8:29PM
  • I'm no drug and alcohol expert and I know dealing with cravings is hard. It seems to me like these suggestions are more reactive than proactive. I would have thought the key would be replacing negative behaviours with positive ones and reinforcing the associations which go along with those.

    Date and time
    December 19, 2012, 1:10PM
    • One the points that this story makes is that the SMART Recovery program helps people learn strategies to change behaviour

      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 1:17PM
    • The Mindful Eating article over at Daily Life has some good tips too. Learning (or rather relearning) to accept feeling a little bit hungry, instead of rushing to go eat something, was very useful for me.

      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 1:39PM
  • This is a totally valid article - thank you Paula! For anyone trying to kick an eating or drinking addiction, or even just on a simple weight loss journey, it's hard enough for them to deal with their own inner voice. What they DO NOT NEED is other people making it harder for them! A one week (or more) relapse of a work in progress, just to appease other people, is NOT OK.

    It IS possible to enjoy the company of family and friends at Christmas without stuffing oneself silly or drinking yourself under the table... To emerge out the other end having made great food and drink choices is quite likely the best Christmas present someone battling a drinking or eating issue can give themselves.

    But this article is not saying that 'everyone should abstain' from eating/drinking a lot at Christmas. It's your own choice. What is says so very well is if someone says 'no thank you', please, pull your head in and resist the urge to put your own agenda on to them, stop being selfish and respect THEIR choices. DO NOT SAY something like "But it's Christmas!".... Does it affect you? No! Are they telling YOU not to eat/drink? No! Let them have the best Christmas they can FOR THEM. It's the best Christmas present YOU could possibly give them.

    Date and time
    December 19, 2012, 1:47PM
    • We don't do Christmas in China. Instead we hunker down against the icy blast of the North Wind and work hard and steadfastly as we do every other day. At night we gather around a coal fire and swap stories of the revolution and the struggle of the people as we eat a bowl of warm steamed rice and a half pig rib. There is no time to kick back in a flurry of expensive wine and cocaine as our friends brag about their iphone5 and compare notes on celebrities. Life here is hard but fair, whether you be christian or not.

      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 6:04PM

      More comments

      Make a comment

      You are logged in as [Logout]

      All information entered below may be published.

      Error: Please enter your screen name.

      Error: Your Screen Name must be less than 255 characters.

      Error: Your Location must be less than 255 characters.

      Error: Please enter your comment.

      Error: Your Message must be less than 300 words.

      Post to

      You need to have read and accepted the Conditions of Use.

      Thank you

      Your comment has been submitted for approval.

      Comments are moderated and are generally published if they are on-topic and not abusive.

      HuffPost Australia

      Follow Us on Facebook

      Featured advertisers


      Capricorn horoscope

      Trust others to think for themselves. Don't be snobbish about what seems obvious. Everyone learns at their own pace, including you.

      ...find out more here