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Alcohol or Drug Use during Social and Family Gatherings, Events, and Holidays

This entry was posted in Substance Abuse on .

By Dr. Edward A. Selby, Ph.D.

person pouring drink at holiday party

How do you tell if a person’s drinking alcohol or taking drugs at a family gathering or social event is normal versus a sign of something much worse?

Social gatherings are some of the most important and enjoyable events of life. Whether such events include attending a concert, celebrating a holiday, or immersing yourself in a championship sporting event, social gatherings can provide us with a sense of belonging and purpose. To heighten the enjoyment, many groups will use alcohol during the event to relax and have fun, and in some cases, people also bring drugs to the party. Because of this, social gatherings and events are also some of the most frequent settings for problematic alcohol or drug use. While it is one thing to consume moderate quantities of alcohol or other drugs for fun and entertainment, sometimes things will get out of control, leading to people acting in problematic or harmful ways because of too much use.

Social gatherings and parties are situations where more frequent legal problems arise due to substance use, such as arrests for disorderly conduct or DUI.

Patrick & Azar (2018) indicate that high-intensity drinking is more likely to occur during special occasions and celebrations including holidays, sporting events, and birthdays (notably 21st birthdays). While substance use in many of these settings might be considered “socially normative,” meaning that it’s considered socially acceptable, there is a delicate line between socially acceptable substance consumption and dangerous consumption. Problematic or dangerous substance use at social gatherings or during the holidays can include the following; erratic or high-risk behaviors (e.g., deciding to drive while intoxicated, perceptions of invincibility leading to jumping from high places, etc.), increased quarreling with others present or even physical fighting, overconsumption of the substance leading to overdose, vomiting, or losing consciousness, becoming distressed at the prospect of not having access to the drug or alcohol, or changes in mood such as intense feelings of depression or manic exuberance (AAC, 2021).

If someone you know is exhibiting signs of addiction or problematic alcohol or drug use, they should be encouraged to seek help and reach out to a medical substance abuse treatment center for detox treatment and rehabilitation treatment options.

If you or a loved one needs help with any addiction our caring counselors can help. Your call is 100% confidential and there is no obligation.

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Celebrating a Little Too Hard…

A major reason that many people use alcohol or drugs during social gatherings is to enhance or improve the celebration experience (White et al., 2016). People often want to feel good and/or relaxed during such events, and substance use may be a way for them to heighten such feelings. For example, alcohol is a regular staple at summer barbecues and picnics, and alcohol use tends to be elevated during weddings (Bartram et al., 2017). Sporting events are also well known for having high alcohol consumption during the games and with tailgating (Patrick & Azar, 2018), and rates are even higher during championship events like the Super Bowl (Dearing et al., 2014). Danger for excessive or harmful substance use also exists at concerts and electronic music events (Falcon et al., 2021), where substance use is considered commonplace. A major problem with the social encouragement of heavy alcohol consumption in many social settings is that it can lead to incorrect beliefs that everyone is consuming just as much alcohol and that doing so is safe when celebratory drinking can be extremely dangerous if not done in a safe environment (Willis, Adams, & Keene, 2019). In fact, alcohol poisoning and deaths happen far too often in many college campuses’ social gatherings and fraternity/sorority systems, which are more likely to endorse heavy drinking cultures (Abadi et al., 2020; Thompson & Huynh, 2017). So even if a substance is used to enhance the enjoyment of a social gathering, just keep in mind that people tend to exaggerate the importance and level of alcohol or substance consumption in such settings.

Holiday Stress, Mental Health, and Substance Use

Holidays represent specific, annually repeated social gatherings that often have a unique relationship to substance use behavior. For example, many around the world celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, a traditional Irish holiday that is often paired with heavy drinking. Researchers have also found potential differences in the type of holiday celebrated, with some holidays being more prone to substance use issues. While family-oriented holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas may demonstrate relatively decreased alcohol usage among those who drink regularly, people tended to consume quite a bit more alcohol with more party-relevant holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, New Year’s Eve, and the Fourth of July (Patrick & Azar, 2018). Indeed, New Year’s Eve is one of the highest drinking days of the year, and it’s also associated with increased substance-involve motor vehicle accidents (Anowar, Yasmin, & Tay, 2013; Kushnir & Cunningham, 2014). Likewise, some individuals find holiday celebrations and family gatherings stressful, and they may use alcohol or drugs to cope with such stressors.

Holidays and mental health have a mixed relationship

Holidays and mental health have a mixed relationship. Sanson & Sanson (2011) suggested that mental health during the Christmas holiday season may follow two alternate patterns. For most people, the holiday season seems to help improve mental health, and this can be measured by decreased usage of psychiatric emergency services, decreased self-harming behavior, and reduced suicide deaths during the season. However, for other people, the second pattern involves worsening of mental health symptoms that can lead to increases in problems, including substance use. Furthermore, Sanson & Sanson (2011) also note that even if many experience a positive impact on mental health during the holiday season, a subsequent worsening of mental health after the holiday season ends. Therefore, in general, the holidays are a good time to be mindful of mental health considerations for yourself and those you care about.

So, if holidays are helpful for most peoples’ mental health, why are they problematic for some? Well, the same people that can be most important and helpful to us in life (i.e., family and friends) can also become occasional sources of major conflict and disagreement in life. Consequently, at holidays many people experiencing conflict in these relationships will turn to alcohol or other chemical substances to cope with holiday-related stress, with the substance frequently dulling the emotional edge of such conflicts. But even if substance use helps calm the nerves of some during the holidays, substance use is also likely to cause its own conflicts during the holiday celebration. Most readers can probably recall a holiday gathering where someone went a little too far and made things awkward for everyone else, and no one wants to be the troublemaker!

Alcohol and Other Substances Aren’t Necessary to Enjoy Social Gatherings and Holidays!

Based on the prior discussion, it’s understandable why many people would want to use alcohol or drugs during social gatherings or holiday celebrations. Many feel that the use of a substance heightens the enjoyment of the experience, or they may feel that it helps reduce the stress of a situation. But it’s important to remember that you don’t need alcohol or drugs to enjoy these social events and using alcohol or drugs may end up causing just as much stress as you might be trying to avoid! For example, in one case where someone was recovering from excessive alcohol use, she reported improved social experiences without alcohol, stating, “It’s just nice, you can have proper conversations because you’re not slowly getting a little bit more drunk, a bit sillier, and saying stupid things” (Bartram et al., 2017). Without substances getting in the way, you might even be able to build, repair, or improve relationships. Alcohol and drugs offer many false promises, and in reality, they tend to cause more harm than good. Don’t let them ruin your celebrations and consider avoiding or moderating use during the social gatherings for your best experience!


If you or a loved one needs help with any addiction our caring counselors can help. Your call is 100% confidential and there is no obligation.

Call Now: (866) 317-8395


Abadi, M. H., Shamblen, S. R., Thompson, K. T., Richard, B. O., Parrino, H., & Hall, M. T. (2020). Peer-led training to reduce alcohol misuse and related harm among Greek-affiliated students. Substance Use & Misuse, 55(14), 2321-2331.

American Addiction Centers (2021). Drug addiction signs. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/adult-addiction-treatment-programs/signs

Anowar, S., Yasmin, S., & Tay, R. (2013). Comparison of crashes during public holidays and regular weekends. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 51, 93-97.

Bartram, A., Eliott, J., & Crabb, S. (2017). ‘Why can’t I just not drink?’A qualitative study of adults’ social experiences of stopping or reducing alcohol consumption. Drug and Alcohol Review, 36(4), 449-455.

Falcon, A., Halstead, V. A., & McCabe, B. E. (2021). College students’ experiences with substance use at electronic music events: A qualitative study. Journal of American College Health, 1-9.

Dearing, R. L., Twaragowski, C. L., Smith, P. H., Homish, G. G., Connors, G. J., & Walitzer, K. S. (2014). Super Bowl Sunday: risky business for at-risk (male) drinkers?. Substance Use & Misuse, 49(10), 1359-1363.

Goldman, M. S., Greenbaum, P. E., Darkes, J., Brandon, K. O., & Del Boca, F. K. (2011). How many versus how much: 52 weeks of alcohol consumption in emerging adults. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 25(1), 16-27.

Kushnir, V., & Cunningham, J. A. (2014). Event-specific drinking in the general population. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 75(6), 968-972.

Patrick, M. E., & Azar, B. (2018). High-intensity drinking. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 39(1), 49-55.

Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2011). The Christmas effect on psychopathology. Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, 8(12), 10-13.

Thompson, K. M., & Huynh, C. (2017). Alone and at risk: A statistical profile of alcohol-related college student deaths. Journal of Substance Use, 22(5), 549-554.

White, H. R., Anderson, K. G., Ray, A. E., & Mun, E. Y. (2016). Do drinking motives distinguish extreme drinking college students from their peers?. Addictive Behaviors, 60, 213-218.

Willis, E., Adams, R., & Keene, J. (2019). If everyone is doing it, it must be safe: College students’ development of attitudes toward poly-substance use. Substance Use & Misuse, 54(11), 1886-1893.

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