Written by: Sarah Bateman, LCSW
The Renfrew Center’s Liaison to the Jewish Community
Passover can be a stressful time of year for those suffering from an eating disorder. In this post, we break down the biggest challenges and how to navigate them.
Passover is possibly the most stressful time of the year for anyone who observes Jewish practices, and especially for anyone who has an eating disorder. The Passover Seder may also be the most observed Jewish ritual, and people across all levels of Jewish observance may be affected.
Challenges of Passover to be aware of:
- Leavened foods (such as bread) are not allowed for the entire holiday of Passover, and matzoh is eaten instead. This can present multiple challenges for anyone who is used to a routine of eating bread and pasta or is trying to feel satisfied from their meals, it can be especially challenging for someone who may be trying to incorporate those foods into their meal plan as part of their exposure work in eating disorder treatment.
- For those who strictly observe, one is not supposed to own any leavened foods, and should stringently clean their homes to get rid of any leavened products. This can apply to dishes and cookware in addition to the food itself and can present multiple challenges for those with OCD and anxiety.
- The Passover Seder is a long ritual that can present multiple difficulties, including but not limited to, managing the timing of eating, feeling too hungry or too full, consuming the minimum required amounts of matzoh, drinking the 4 cups of wine, spending too much time with family, navigating difficult family relationships, or experiencing feelings of loneliness for those who don’t celebrate with family or friends.
- For those preparing Passover, there can be a lot of stress in the cooking, cleaning and preparations.
- For those that go away to Passover programs (many people go away in order to avoid the preparations) there is often stress associated with the significant emphasis and expectations around appearance, clothing and dress, including a fear of overeating the large amounts of food served at holiday meals throughout the day for 8 days.
Being aware of challenges is always a good way to prepare oneself to deal with them. It is recommended that everyone identify which aspects may be difficult for them in their own observance as they approach the Passover holiday. With the support of their treatment team, they can develop a plan to manage these challenges and celebrate Passover in a meaningful and positive way that works for them.
Ideas to Consider
Consult your treatment team
- Worried about the Passover food? Consult your dietitian so that you can create a meal plan together that incorporates Passover foods that still fit in with your own individual needs, hunger, and preferences. Plan for the timing of the meals as well as the different foods.
- Not sure about Jewish law or how you can observe the rules? Or are you getting caught in “thinking traps” about Jewish law? Include a rabbi as part of your treatment team. Ask a Rabbi early – rabbis often get a lot of questions right before the holiday, so don’t wait to ask if you have a question in advance. A rabbi may be able to advise you to make adjustments that work better with your treatment. Besides the concept that life and health always come first in Judaism, and that you need to eat for the sake of your life and health, there may be allowances within Jewish law that can make it easier for you to follow your meal plan. Being stricter is not always better, and a rabbi can often help differentiate between what is actually permitted and what may be perpetuating eating disordered thoughts or behaviors.
- Worried about all the wine at the Seder? It is acceptable to drink grape juice instead of wine for the 4 cups.
- Are you struggling with anxiety, depression, or just general feelings of being overwhelmed as you approach Passover? Reach out for help and speak to a therapist. Remember that you do not have to struggle alone. See if you can pinpoint some of the specific concerns for yourself so that you can try to work on strategies to deal with them. Remember that it is normal to struggle, you don’t have to do it alone, and it is okay to need help.
Consider what you want to get our of Passover
What values of Passover speak to you? Explore the themes of Passover and see how they might be helpful to you:
- Exploring reasons for observances – What does Passover mean to you? Why do you do this? What do you want to get out of it?
- Is there something you didn’t have at Passover before that you can give yourself now? Can you focus on providing that for someone else?
- Theme of freedom – What does freedom mean to you? What can you do to free yourself from the constraints of your eating disorder? How can you focus on the rituals of Passover instead of the rituals of your eating disorder?
- Theme of 4 – Can you make 4 positive goals or affirmations to correspond to the each of 4 questions, 4 sons, and 4 glasses of wine?
- Timing of holiday – Spring/ Nissan – new beginnings, first month of Jewish year. Can you focus on a new beginning for yourself?
- Mitzrayim (Egypt) – Comes from the word “narrow” – How can we break free from our own personal narrowness? How can we get out of our own heads and help others? Who is still enslaved today and what can we do to help?
Apply Emotional Tolerance Skills
Remember the skills that you learned or are learning in treatment and see how you can trust yourself to go through your emotions. Allow yourself to experience your feelings, without any judgement, and see if you are able to get through the challenges and the difficult emotions that you may be experiencing, rather than trying to get rid of them. Can you allow yourself to have your struggles, and can you also allow yourself to feel some happiness or peace?
Maybe, you will even be able to enjoy your holiday and find something to celebrate. Wishing you a happy Passover.