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Eating Disorder Recovery During the Holidays: What to Expect & How to Maintain

Woman wrapping presents during the holiday season.

Written by: Holly Willis, PMHNP-BC
Nurse Practitioner, The Renfrew Center 

Navigating the holidays while in recovery from an eating disorder presents unique challenges as well as opportunities for growth. In this blog, we will review common challenges that arise at holiday gatherings and offer some tips for maintaining, and even strengthening, your recovery in the face of these tough situations.

Woman wrapping presents during the holiday season.Family, friends, fun, and … food. For many, the holidays represent a time to gather with loved ones and celebrate familial and cultural traditions. For those with an eating disorder, the combination of food and family can be a recipe for disaster. Let’s look at some of the challenges that often present during the holidays.

What are some of the common challenges around holidays for those with eating disorders?

Food. This one is obvious. For those with eating disorders, food already takes up a lot of mental space and during the holidays, food is frequently front and center. Whether you struggle with symptoms such as restricting, bingeing, purging or avoidance of food based on texture or taste, the sheer volume and variety of food can be daunting. For many, the classic holiday dishes are precisely those which invoke the most fear and guilt.

Family. Families are complicated. While family members can be great supports on the road to recovery, the ways in which family members behave and interact can cause a lot of stress. Maybe your family tends to argue around the holidays. Maybe there are family members that drink too much and disrupt the celebration. Perhaps your family is focused on diet culture and comments about food or weight are constantly woven into conversation. Family gatherings can also be overstimulating and the increase in social interactions with distant relatives or family friends can stir up social anxiety for many folks. The complex nature of family relationships combined with eating disorder thoughts and urges can really increase distress around holiday gatherings.

Memories. The holidays are memorable, but memories can be painful.  Whether the memories involve past holidays deep in eating disorder behaviors or bitter-sweet nostalgia for those no longer with us, our past lived experience shapes how we view the world and our expectations for the future. We carry these feelings into our present and they will color our experience. The distress related to unhappy holiday memories can increase urges for eating disorder behaviors in an attempt to cope with that distress and regain a sense of control.

What opportunities do I have to maintain and strengthen my recovery during the holidays?

Values. A gifted eating disorder therapist once told me that the holidays can be an easy time for the eating disorder to put its values first, but it can also be an important time for you to live according to your own values. It is essential to identify your values and live out your values through thoughts, words, and actions. The holidays are an excellent time to bring your values into focus and align your life with them.

Exposures. While food and family can cause significant distress, the holidays are an opportune time to challenge yourself by facing that discomfort and experimenting with new behaviors. The holidays provide numerous opportunities to practice the skills you have learned in recovery and integrate them into real life situations. This is an opportunity to see what works and where you may need more practice.

Practicing Flexibility. Much of what happens around us at a holiday gathering is out of your direct control. You may not have prepared all the food or hand-picked the guest list. This is a good time to practice being flexible in your thinking and your meal plan. Eating disorders are rigid and by increasing flexibility you are actively fighting against it.

Connection. Eating disorders are isolating and connecting with the people who fully accept and validate us can create a sense of peace and comfort. Using relational skills gained during recovery can strengthen bonds with your supports and loved ones, allowing you to access the support you need.

7 Tips to Navigate the Holidays

Here are 7 tips to help you navigate the holidays:

#1: Make a Plan

Plan ahead for gatherings, especially when food is involved, so that you are meeting all the components of your meal plan. Ensure that there is a plan for the entire day not just the main meal. Avoid “saving your appetite” for the main meal as this can lead to bingeing from being very hungry or even to restricting from the physical discomfort of hunger.

#2: Set Boundaries

The holidays create opportunities to practice boundary setting. For example, you might try setting boundaries with your family about what comments will not be welcomed. It may be helpful to let guests know you do not want to hear comments about food, dieting, weight, or body size. Consider letting them know that even compliments about food or your body can be triggering and unhelpful. You might practice saying “no” to certain events in order to create more time for rest or save your energy for different, more meaningful activities. If someone will not respect your boundary and continues to violate it, give yourself permission to excuse yourself from their immediate presence.

#3: Prepare Responses to Unhelpful Comments

Come up with a few simple but clear responses in case unhelpful comments are said. For example, you can say, “When you make comments about my (food, weight, body) I feel (anxious, sad, upset) and I ask that you avoid making any comments about that topic altogether.” Role playing with your therapist or with a trusted friend can be a helpful way to practice these skills before big events.

#4: Designate a Support Person

Having someone you can turn to for support and accountability can help you stay on track. It is often helpful to invite this person to join your therapy or dietary sessions beforehand so you can clearly communicate how they can best support you.

#5: Stay Present and Centered

It is easy for your thoughts to drift to the past or predict the future. Staying present in the moment can help you stick to your plan and successfully regulate your emotions. Intention setting, breathing, grounding into your senses, and checking in with yourself will help anchor you back into the present moment during stressful times.

#6: Give Yourself Permission to Feel

It is completely normal to feel a variety of emotions during the holidays. It is important to remember all emotions have a function and avoiding them or numbing them only strengthens their intensity over time. Instead, approach your emotions with curiosity and listen to the messages they are trying to tell you. Feeling anxious? Maybe you need to put effort into preparing for something. Angry? Maybe someone wronged you or violated a boundary and the anger is giving you the energy to address it. Sad? Maybe you desire connection and should seek out emotional support from a trusted person.

#7: Plan for Self-Care

Plan ahead to do things for yourself by scheduling in time for self-care during the holiday season. Plan to take a leisurely walk, play with the family pet, draw, read, journal, or sit and talk to your trusted loved one.

Conclusion

The holidays, with its bounty of family and food, can be difficult when recovering from an eating disorder. However, they can also be an opportunity to strengthen your recovery and practice your skills. By planning ahead, staying present, checking in with yourself, and reflecting on the experience afterward, you can identify what is working and where there are opportunities for improvement. It is important to remember that perfection is never the goal, and that this holiday season is just another steppingstone in your path to recovery.

Happy Holidays from all of us at The Renfrew Center!

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