Coping with an Eating Disorder During the Holidays

by Cassie Finegan, MFTC

While the holidays are typically a time to be joyful and merry, and for some, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, it may be extremely challenging for someone struggling with an eating disorder or in recovery from an eating disorder.

The holidays tend to center around many food-focused events from thanksgiving, office holiday parties, the smell of cinnamon and cookies in the air, gingerbread houses, and family parties rocking around the Christmas tree, and all of this can be triggering from someone with an eating disorder. Certain foods, quantities, comments from family and friends about gaining weight, and how much is on one’s plate can be harmful to someone struggling or in recovery.

Surviving your way through the holidays with an eating disorder can feel like treading water to keep your head above the current, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Here are some strategies to cope with an eating disorder during the holidays.

Routine – With all the various events, activities, and get-togethers around the holidays, your schedule is likely to be impacted by the lack of consistency and disruption of daily routine; including your meal plan. Going into the holidays might mean needing to work more closely with your dietitian in order to stick to your designated meal plan; timing, quantity/portions, and navigating fear foods. Work with your therapist and dietitian to navigate balancing fear foods with comfort foods. While your typical routines and meal plan may be disrupted, do your best to stick to your normal snack and meal times and only adjust as needed in order to maintain whatever amount of normalcy you can.
Buddy the Elf – Going into events with a support buddy can be extremely protective when struggling with an eating disorder! Let this person know what may be triggering or what you’re currently working on in recovery. This person can help you stay accountable to sticking to your meal plan and routines, and be a person to rely on when you need some extra support. It may even be a good idea to have this support buddy approach the buffet line with you to remind you of your strengths and what foods you are comfortable with. Overall, having at least one person that you can rely on to support you and help hold you accountable to your recovery goals can be a major protective factor throughout the holiday season.

Set Boundaries – The holidays tend to denote increased time spent with family members of all different variations. This can at times heighten past family dynamics, conflict or interactions that are distressing. This may lead to the desire to utilize your eating disorder as your safety blanket or coping mechanism. Know that you can set boundaries and take breaks when needed. Allow yourself to take a walk, take a break for a bath, journaling, or to call a friend or partner for support. Rather than falling back on your eating disorder, try to give yourself some grace and take breaks when needed.
Prioritize events – the holidays are filled with event after event, and too many on your schedule can lead to increased anxiety and triggers, as well as trying to plan all of your days in advance which can exacerbate that anxiety. Instead, prioritize the people and events that are most fulfilling and joyful, and limit yourself to attending those.
Remind Yourself of the Reason for the Season – While it can feel like the whole focus of the holidays is on food at times, remind yourself of the reason for celebrating; the connection, memories, and traditions that you hold dear. Shift the focus from the food onto the traditions and activities that make the season so magical: building a snowman, going to a lights show, playing board games with friends and family, going sledding/skiing/snowboarding/ice skating, watching holiday movies, and fill your time with other activities that remind you of the magic of the season.
Challenge the Diet Talk and Food Police – The holidays can be overrun with comments from family and friends about gaining weight, unhealthy and/or good vs. bad foods, sugar, overeating, etc. Prepare yourself to hear these comments and know that they can be triggering. Allow yourself to take space and breaks from these comments, and maybe even position yourself apart from these individuals at gatherings where this could be more present. These comments can lead to increased feelings of guilt and shame around consumption so it could be helpful to prepare by predicting the common comments/statements that you may encounter and write down possible responses to these comments (either to say aloud or to remind yourself). Keep these on a notecard or in the ‘Notes’ app on your phone so that you can be reminded of how to challenge these negative comments and thoughts in a pro-recovery way.
Cooking Queen – Depending on where you’re at in your recovery, eating any amount of food that you haven’t prepared may be extremely challenging in and of itself. That’s okay, know that being honest with the host of an event can be in your favor by letting them know you’re struggling, and while you don’t want to offend them by not eating their food, bringing your own dish that you feel comfortable eating can also be a safe option. If it feels safe, you can always challenge yourself to eat some of the other fear foods, but having a backup plan and a comfort/safety food will allow you a safe base to explore other options.

Self-Care – Be prepared that going into the holidays can be triggering to an eating disorder, and set up practices to take care of yourself and keep your triggers at bay. Incorporate self-care practices into your daily routines, especially in the hours leading up to and following holiday events to give yourself time to ground and recent yourself before and after anxiety-provoking events. This can look like reminding yourself of your pro-recovery affirmations and fact-checks, taking a calming bath, reading a fun or soothing book, talking to friends, watching comfort movies, going on walks or spending time outside, and whatever else helps you emotionally regulate and ground yourself.

Overall, while the holidays can be anxiety-provoking and triggering for someone struggling with an eating disorder: you are not alone and you will get through this season. The holiday season doesn’t have to be a dreaded time, and utilizing some support, planning, collaboration, and self-care can shift the holidays closer to a winter wonderland. Be gentle with yourself while you are navigating a challenging and emotional season; you are so strong and brave to work toward recovery in the face of your fears!

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