For many, the holidays are a source of joy and a time for celebration with friends and family. Most holiday festivities culminate with a traditional meal around the table with loved ones.
However, for the millions of men, women, and children who live with eating disorders the holidays often take on a new meaning. They become a waking nightmare due to the often overwhelming schedules of parties, stressful family dynamics, and an overemphasis on food.
It is extremely common for individuals with eating disorders to experience intense stress, anxiety, and fear as the holidays approach. As a mental health therapist in private practice, I often see an increase in eating-disordered thoughts and behaviors beginning at Halloween and continuing through New Year’s day. Sometimes this is due to the anticipation of being inundated with a large variety of rich, high-calorie foods. Many sufferers even think that they have to lose weight leading up to holiday feasts and parties to have a “cushion” in order to participate in dinner just the same as every else or to avoid suspicion from others.
Other times, the stress comes from knowing that family and friends will make some of the comments about food or weight that are commonly heard around the holiday table (“I will have to work this off later”,“Well, I’m not eating breakfast or lunch so I can dig in at dinner”, “Ugh, this is going straight to my hips!”).
Staying active in eating disorder recovery is a challenge on any given day. It’s even more challenging when you’re being triggered by your Grandmother’s comments about your weight or your best-friend’s six-layer trifle.
For those currently suffering from an eating disorder, or in active recovery, I offer the following tips and strategies to help you navigate this stressful time:
You Don’t Have To Do It Alone: Be as honest as you can with your family and friends. Talking about some your fears and concerns can help them become more aware of potential triggers and allow them to be more mindful of their comments. You can confide in someone you trust and ask them to be your support partner. Ask them if you can check in with them before, during, or after meal times. It can be comforting to know that some is there to help you during a difficult time. Talk with your therapist. Your therapist can work with you on developing coping skills and they can address any concerns or anxiety you may have. Together you can make a plan to deal with triggers that may come up so you don’t fall back in self-destructive patterns. Attend a support group. Find a local or online eating disorder support group to chat with others who know what your going through. Support groups are a great source of support and encouragement.
Know Your Triggers: Make a list of all the people, places and events that have been the most challenging for you to deal with. If you remind yourself in advance that your mother always makes a snide comment about your weight or eating habits, you can be more prepared to deal with it and it will be far less impactful. Similarly, if you already know that you will encounter trigger or fear foods at your office Christmas Party, you will not be caught off-guard and will better able to navigate it.
Have a Plan To Deal With Unhelpful Comments: After you come up with a list of anticipated triggers, come up with a specific plan of action for each one. When your mother makes that comment about your weight, you can counter it with: “I do not want to focus on my weight right now. Did you see the pictures of my new puppy?” You can predetermine your reaction and shift the uncomfortable conversation into a topic that can bring you or some else joy. Whichever boundaries you want to put in place is up to you. You may also want to tell your family and friends ahead of time not to make remarks about your eating disorder. They may not respect your wishes, but it’s good to get in the habit of verbalizing your wants and needs. Plan your responses and practice them often.
Only Commit To What You Can handle. You do not need to attend every single event from October to January. Make a list of event invites and start crossing off any that are unnecessary or that will give you too much stress. It is okay to respectfully decline invitations that you know will be overwhelming for you. Make another list of all holiday-related tasks that you want to get done. Prioritize them and remove any that will add unneeded stress.
Stick To Your Recovery Plan. Plan ahead so that you are able to keep up with your normal meal plan and treatment plan as best you can. Do not restrict leading up to (or after) an event. If you are concerned about purging during or after a party, let your therapist (or support partner or a trusted friend) know ahead of time, put a safety plan in place, and check in with them if urges come up.
Find Different Ways To Enjoy The Holidays.
Take the time to discover new traditions. Contribute to a toy drive, make your own decorations, come up with fun holiday games to try, read a new book during your days off, take a walk and enjoy nature. Set goals for the year ahead. Be present with your loved ones.
Reflect On What’s Important. When you are struggling with an active eating disorder it is really hard to think about much of anything else. It feels like The Most Important Thing. But, if we put things into perspective, there is so much more to you. You are not your eating disorder. Make an inventory of the things that truly matter to you. You get to define your life.
Aim For Balance. I do not believe in “good” and “bad” foods. There are bad food habits and there are positive or negative associations with certain foods. Moderation is the key. Do not ever deny yourself a food that you enjoy. Restricting eventually backfires and only creates shame. Make a plan to eat a holiday dish that you have always liked. If there will not be a good balance of healthy foods at an event, you can offer to bring something that you know you will be able to eat.
Self-Care, Self-Care, Self-Care! Self-care is always a must for any given day but it is crucial during eating disorder recovery, and especially during the holiday season. Make a list of calming, enjoyable self-care activities that bring you joy. This can be things like: take a walk, have a bubble bath, read a new book, write in my journal, go play pool, listen to my favorite music, take a nap, etc. This list will be unique to you.
Be Kind to Yourself. If you eat more than you had planned, binged, purged, or restricted, do not dwell on it. Stop negative self-talk and accept it. Start again for the next meal. Recovery is not linear. It is a roller coaster. It is a process of learning self-love and positive coping skills. It is allowing yourself to make mistakes and take things a moment at a time.
Lastly, some reminders:
You are allowed to say “no” to certain foods.
You are allowed to say “yes” to certain foods.
You do not owe anyone an explanation, but…
It’s okay to speak up and reach out for help if you are struggling.
It’s okay to change the subject if you are uncomfortable.
Try your best to shift your focus from the stress of the season to the joys of the season.
Food is fuel, not the enemy.
Recovery is not linear.
Be kind and forgiving to yourself!
Wishing you all a happy and mindful holiday season!
I am a therapist in private practice in Vero Beach and Orlando, Florida. I specialize in helping children, adolescents, and young adults heal from eating disorders, depression, and anxiety in order to achieve more positive perspectives, self-compassion, and confidence.
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