Managing an Eating Disorder During the Holidays

Holidays can exacerbate the stress and anxiety related to the recovery of an eating disorder.

February 1, 2024

Holidays can exacerbate the stress and anxiety related to the recovery of an eating disorder. With holidays often having a focus on food-related traditions, individuals struggling with an eating disorder may face triggers and setbacks during this period. It is paramount to prioritize self-care and a recovery based mindset in order to navigate the challenges associated with the holidays. We compiled a list of seven ways to assist in working through an eating disorder during the holiday season.

1. Create a List of Coping Strategies

Write down what works for you. Think of ways you navigate through stress, anxiety, guilt, and other difficult feelings that may arise in your recovery. Everyone’s list will look different, but some coping strategies that may be helpful could be grounding techniques, repeating mantras, taking a short walk to calm down, splitting up your day with intermittent breaks to yourself, and engaging in conversation with supportive individuals. Use this as trial and error, find what works for you and keep them as a tool for continued coping.

2. Practice Mindfulness and Gratitude

Mindfulness and gratitude are revolutionary ideas that can be implemented in numerous ways throughout your life, especially while navigating your recovery. Mindfulness in regards to eating involves utilizing all five senses while completing a meal. This would include being aware of the texture, scent, flavor, and temperature of the food. Be open to the food and avoid judgment of whether it is “good or bad”. Taking part in the creation of the food may also allow for you to feel more grateful for it. Assist in the making of holiday cookies, meals, or even appetizers when able! Try to focus on being grateful for the various flavors, choices, and variety of the food available to you. Be open and accepting during this process!

3. Formulate a Support Plan and Stay Connected to Your Care Team

If you are currently working with a support team of therapists and nutritionists it is imperative to stay in contact with them throughout the holiday season. Ask if you are able to schedule a session around holiday events, and if not, ensure that you have the proper materials to continue a safe recovery while you are on a short break from sessions. If you do not have access to a regular support team, identify individuals who you can speak with to work through the difficult emotions that may arise. These individuals may be friends, parents, or siblings - anyone you can comfortably confide in and who can provide feedback in an appropriate way.

4. Plan Ahead

A great way to ease anxiety associated with an eating disorder is to plan ahead. Ask to know what food options will be available at holiday celebrations, where you are expected to attend, how long the event is, and who will be there. If necessary, select which events you will choose to attend, who you plan on speaking with, and what you are going to choose to eat. Having this plan can aid in the feeling of autonomy over one’s life choices and eating behaviors. Creating plans also assists in diminishing the intense anxieties that go along with holidays and eating disorders.

5. Set Healthy Boundaries

Holidays often call for the gathering of friends and family who you may not see often. This aspect alone can create intense feelings of stress, anxiety, and panic. Along with that, individuals may see this as a time to make inappropriate body related comments such as, “Wow you look great, have you lost weight?” or “Are you sure you want a second plate?” It is important to nix these comments immediately to prevent them from continuing. Find ways to respectfully and directly set boundaries with peers and family members. These boundaries may look like setting and announcing the time you will be saying until, saying that you are not comfortable with weight and body comments, and stating that you are comfortable with your eating choices and would not like any commentary on them.

6. Create Traditions That Do Not Involve Food

While we are often hesitant to change or create new traditions, it provides an opportunity to make new memories and show compassion for those struggling with an eating disorder. It is nice to uphold those long held food related traditions, but take this time to implement new ones. Ideas for this could be going to a Christmas light show, decorating gingerbread houses, or hanging ornaments on the tree as a family. Get creative and identify things that can be fun for everyone!

7. Practice Positive and Compassionate Self Talk

Eating disorders have the tendency to diminish one’s self-esteem and confidence. In order to combat this, it is important to reframe your mentality and reinforce positive thoughts about yourself and your recovery.

While interfering with these thoughts, you must first identify when you are having them. When the thought presents itself, take a moment to stop, breathe, and reframe it. Be gentle with yourself, your body, and your mind. Some of the reminders you may use could be “I will appreciate and love myself just as I am”, “I am not defined by my eating disorder”, and “my well-being does not depend on my weight, size, or shape’. Reframe the negative thoughts into ones that can help you grow and recover. Your mind can be your own worst enemy, or your very best friend!

According to NEDA, 28.8 million Americans struggle with an eating disorder. Holidays pose significant physical and mental struggles for all individuals, but especially for those who struggle with an eating disorder. Be mindful of your body and your own needs, but also be mindful of the ways you interact with others and how what you say and do may be triggering.

8. Identify and Avoid Potential Triggers

During holiday events, it is important to identify and avoid potential triggers that may lead to setbacks in your recovery. These triggers could be certain foods, people, or situations that cause anxiety or stress. It is okay to politely decline an invitation if you feel that it may trigger negative thoughts or behaviors related to your eating disorder. If you do attend an event where there may be triggering circumstances, have a plan in place beforehand on how to cope with them. This could include bringing a supportive friend or family member with you, practicing mindfulness techniques, or having a safe space to retreat to if needed. Remember that your health and well-being are the top priority, and it is okay to prioritize them over social obligations during this time.

9. Strategies for Dealing with Food-Related Guilt or Shame

Holiday events can often trigger feelings of guilt or shame related to food and eating behaviors. It is important to remember that these feelings are common and normal, but they do not have to control your holiday experience. One strategy for dealing with food-related guilt or shame is to practice self-compassion. Remind yourself that it is okay to indulge in holiday treats and enjoy the festive atmosphere. Avoid labeling foods as "good" or "bad", and instead focus on moderation and balance in your overall eating habits.

Another strategy is to plan ahead for how you will respond if someone makes a comment about your food choices or appearance. Consider practicing assertive communication techniques, such as calmly stating that you are comfortable with your choices and would prefer not to discuss them further. Remember that you are not obligated to justify your eating habits or body size to anyone.

Finally, consider reframing negative thoughts about food and eating into positive affirmations. For example, instead of thinking "I shouldn't have eaten that dessert", try thinking "I enjoyed the dessert and now I will move on". By focusing on the positive aspects of your holiday experience, you can reduce feelings of guilt or shame related to food and enjoy the festivities without unnecessary stress.

Tips for Communicating Your Needs and Boundaries

Communicating your needs and boundaries to loved ones during the holidays can be challenging, but it is essential for maintaining your recovery. Here are some tips to help you effectively communicate with others:

1. Be Clear and Direct

When expressing your needs and boundaries, it is important to be clear and direct. Avoid using vague language or beating around the bush. Clearly state what you need or do not need from others, and explain why it is important for your recovery.

2. Use "I" Statements

Using "I" statements can help prevent others from becoming defensive or feeling attacked. For example, instead of saying "You always make comments about my weight", try saying "I feel uncomfortable when weight-related comments are made".

3. Practice Active Listening

Effective communication involves active listening as well as speaking. Allow others to express their thoughts and feelings without interrupting or becoming defensive. Repeat back what they have said to ensure that you understand their perspective.

4. Set Realistic Expectations

Remember that not everyone will be able to meet all of your needs and boundaries, especially if they do not fully understand your struggles with an eating disorder. However, by setting realistic expectations and communicating clearly, you can minimize misunderstandings and conflicts.

5. Seek Professional Support

If communicating with loved ones about your needs and boundaries feels overwhelming or unproductive, consider seeking support from a professional therapist or counselor who specializes in eating disorders.

By effectively communicating your needs and boundaries during the holidays, you can maintain control over your recovery journey while still enjoying time with loved ones.

Setting Boundaries Around Social Media Use

Social media use during the holidays can be a double-edged sword. While it can provide a way to connect with loved ones who are far away, it can also expose us to triggering content related to food and body image. One way to avoid this is by setting boundaries around social media use.

Consider taking a break from social media altogether during the holiday season. If this isn't feasible, consider unfollowing or muting accounts that post triggering content. You can also set limits on your social media use by scheduling specific times of day when you will check your accounts and avoiding them outside of those times.

Remember that social media is not an accurate representation of reality, and that many posts are curated and edited to present an idealized version of someone's life. By setting boundaries around your social media use, you can focus on your own recovery journey and avoid unnecessary stress during the holiday season.

Conclusion

As we approach the holiday season, it is important to remember that recovery from an eating disorder is a journey. The holidays can be particularly challenging for those who struggle with disordered eating and body image concerns. However, by implementing strategies such as mindfulness, planning ahead, setting boundaries, and effective communication, you can navigate the holiday season while maintaining your recovery goals.

Remember to prioritize your mental and physical health during this time and seek support when needed. Whether it's through a professional therapist or counselor, a supportive friend or family member, or an online community of like-minded individuals, there are resources available to help you on your journey.

Most importantly, be kind and compassionate towards yourself. Recovery is not always linear, and setbacks may occur. But by taking small steps towards self-care and utilizing the strategies outlined in this article, you can create meaningful holiday experiences that align with your values and contribute to your overall well-being.

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