While most people look forward to the holidays, seeing them as a time of family and festivities, people with eating disorders sometimes dread this season. The stress of being with family, and often being in the spotlight, can trigger strong feelings. When I was in early recovery from my eating disorder, any holiday that involved food was difficult. Combine food and feelings and you have a perfect storm for binging, purging, restrictive eating or any combination thereof.
But surviving the holidays is possible, even with our COVID world. If you are struggling with binging, restricting, or overeating, these tips are for you:
Focus on more than food, such as the other things that make the holiday season special. Ask family members to share what the holidays mean to them. Perhaps it means reconnecting with family members that you don’t usually get to see, or sharing in a service activity that feels good. Discuss with family members what you can do together to make the season more special, even if the connection is virtual.
Don’t isolate. When faced with the prospect of food and family, avoiding the holiday altogether can seem like the easiest solution. Isolating rarely helps. Instead, have a game plan. Make it one that seems reasonable. For example, if desserts will be the biggest issue, plan to spend time with your family early in the day and during the rest of the meal.
Try making your family’s traditions more about relationships than food. This may mean sharing with family members what you value in your relationship with them, sharing memories of holidays that don’t involve food, or letting them know how that have helped you in your recovery. Share photos and memories from past holidays.
Eat regularly and in some kind of reasonable pattern. It may be tempting to skip meals or plan to restrict or diet the day following a family holiday — this will set you up. Make the holiday meal just one more meal in the week rather than investing it with supernatural powers. Remember, much of the meal is healthy. The key is portion size and moderation.
Talk to family members in advance about not pushing food or commenting on diets, calories, or weight loss. Oftentimes family members want to see you “enjoy” the meal, and think that the only way that you can do so is to overindulge. Alternately talk about how much you (or they) are eating, or how to burn the calories is also not helpful. Remind family that you are trying to enjoy your time with them and that food cannot be your focus.
Practice gratitude! Thanksgiving a great time to reflect, spend time with loved ones, and to feel gratitude for blessings received.Try keeping a gratitude journal during the holiday season. If it helps, make keeping one year round a New Year’s resolution.
Plan, plan, plan, discuss. Think about what the challenges have been during past holidays or try to anticipate any you may face this year. Discuss your game plan with your therapist, nutritionist, or other members of your treatment team so that they can help you predict, prepare for, and get through any uncomfortable family interactions without using food, or restricting, to cope.
Spend the season talking about things that are really important: challenges, dreams, goals, or spirituality. Allow yourself to have fun rather than rigidly focusing on food or body concerns. This Thanksgiving can be memorable if you make it that way.
Seek the support or friends or peers. Whether it’s a friend, or a support group, remember that others can help when things become too overwhelming. If you are already involved in a support group, stay active, or seek one out if you are currently not involved. There are a number of 12-step and eating groups out there. Avoid isolating, and allow others in. Friends can help you take the focus off the stress and to refocus on positives.
Have plenty of coping skills you can call on: Write in your journal, take a walk, draw or color, call a friend, listen to music. Use these skills if you feel things are too stressful. Have a list of coping skills ready to look at, or create a coping bank — a box that holds slips of paper with different coping skills. Go to the bank whenever you need to.