Navigating The Holidays After An Eating Disorder Can Be Tough — Here's How To Cope

by Kimberly Zapata
Originally Published: 

To say I love the fall would be an understatement. I adore ghosts and goblins and spooky little decorations, particularly witches and owls and things that glow in the night. I’m pumpkin-obsessed. Bring on the seasonal colors, flavors, sights and smells. Oh, and I love the feeling of an oversized hoodie. They are comfortable. Familiar. Like a good, warm hug. But as the weather cools and the days roll on, a familiar sense of dread forms in the pit of my stomach. An ache which cannot be quashed or quenched. Because it isn’t just the “fall season,” it is the holiday season, and the latter is food-centered. It can be a nightmare for eating disorder survivors like me.

Of course, the holidays are stressful for most people. From familial matters to the struggle to find the “perfect” gift, many feel the pressure of the season. But eating disorder survivors — including those who are in recovery — often find it very hard to navigate because there’s (additional) anxiety. Tensions are high. There is seasonal stress. There is also a lot of pressure to attend events which are focused on food, and this can be a lot. It can be overwhelming, at best.

“Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that tend to be characterized by an unhealthy preoccupation with eating, food, body weight, body shape, exercise, or calories,” Brittany Morris, a licensed clinical social worker, tells Scary Mommy. “There are many different eating disorders including but not limited to anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and orthorexia; and individuals who struggle with eating disorders can display a wide range of behaviors, such as restricting food intake, binge eating, compensatory behaviors to counteract calories, obsession with weight or body shape and/or fears of certain food. These fears can be exacerbated during the holiday season.”

“This time of year emphasizes on social gatherings, increased talk of food, diet, and body image, which can increase feelings of engaging in disordered eating patterns and behaviors,” an article by Magnolia Creek — an eating disorder recovery center — explains. However, while the holidays can be difficult for those with eating disorders and/or food issues, it is possible to survive (and thrive) this holiday season. Here are seven tips that may come in handy.

Know your triggers.

Knowing (and identifying) triggers a very important part of recovery. “One of the most important things [you can do…] is identify those factors that are especially difficult for you to cope with — the things most likely to lead you to relapse,” an article on Alsana, an eating recovery community, explains. “If there are certain situations or conversation topics that you find challenging, make sure you know what they are, and be ready to address… them.” And remember: Being mindful and conscientious is half the battle.

Make and commit to a plan.

While it can be hard to stay on task, point or schedule during the holidays, deviating from the “norm” can make things hard, Dr. Laura Minch McLain — the site director of The Renfrew Center of Georgia — explains. “Following your normal routine as much as possible can set you up for success,” Minch McLain says. “It can help you avoid undue anxiety and stress, and following your meal guidelines will help you from falling into extreme eating patterns.” Taking in adequate nutrition throughout the day will also support recovery and normalize healthful eating.

Set boundaries.

Are there conversations you need to avoid? Do certain spaces and places set you off? Know what you need — and don’t need be afraid to ask for it. “Although it can be difficult, boundaries are important for your emotional and physical health,” Minch McLain says. “It is ok to ask your loved ones and friends to not talk about diets or ‘healthy and unhealthy’ foods, especially at meal times. As you honor your hunger and fullness cues, it is okay to decline a second helping or leave food on your plate.” It’s also okay to say no.

“Be self aware about where you are in your recovery process. This should inform the decisions that you make around the holiday season,” Dr. Erin Parks — a clinical psychologist, researcher, and former director at the leading UC San Diego Eating Disorder Center — adds. “Decide if this year is best for you to be at family gatherings, and plan accordingly.” Decline invitations if need be.

Practice self-compassion and self-care.

The holidays are stressful. That’s a fact. But it’s imperative that you take time to practice self-care. “It is integral to recovery to engage in self-care and kindness practices,” Minch McLain says. “Take time to unplug and restore — whether that be through reading, taking a walk, talking to someone, sitting with a pet, or saying ‘no’ to a social event.” Consider engaging in mindfulness activities, like meditation, yoga, and journaling, and reach out for support when needed. Having an outlet and/or multiple outlets, particularly during the holiday season, is key.

Continue therapy.

While it may be tempting to skip a session or two during the holiday season — particularly if your schedule is booked and/or you are busy — you should keep going to therapy. You should also meet with your dietician, if you have one.

“It is important to keep consistent appointments with your therapist, dietitian, and other members of your care team,” an article by Magnolia Creek explains. “You should collaboratively work alongside your care team and support system to develop a plan that includes healthy ways to cope with triggering situations during the holidays. Your care team may [also] recommend a plan that includes ways to manage triggering foods or situations, along with a list of people you can lean on for support in the moment.”

Get creative.

While most holiday celebrations are “food-centered,” know that they do not have to be. It’s okay to switch things up and get creative. “If you want to host a holiday gathering and/or are looking to support your loved one in recovery, one option is to shift the focus of the celebration,” Park says. Shift the focus away from food. How? Parks suggests having a quiet family evening at home with a board game, movie, or crafts. You can take a gentle walk or bike ride or — if you live in a warmer climate — go to the beach or out for a swim, and volunteering or giving back to the community can be a great holiday tradition. The point isn’t what you do, it is that you’re together — celebrating and having fun.

Have an exit plan.

Whether you decide to attend a celebration this season or not, know this: You’re amazing. You’re inspiring. You’re doing great. Recovery is hard. But if you do choose to show up, you should make sure you have an exit strategy — or plan. “Rehearse what you’ll say to duck out of a party or holiday gathering a bit early, should you feel it necessary to do so,” an article by Alsana explains. Why? Because your recovery always comes first, even if that means leaving your holiday dinner before dessert is served.

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