For those who struggle with food, the holiday season can feel overwhelming… to put it mildly. You can easily live in a constant state of stress, anxiety and overwhelm, which is so understandable given all you are battling and trying to overcome.
The holidays do present unique challenges that are less frequent at other times of the year: there is an abundance of food, food is part of many celebrations, you are around more family and friends that could easily make triggering comments about food or weight, and perhaps there is less structure from day to day during holidays breaks that make it harder to stick with your meal plan.
I’d like to offer some advice to those of you struggling with an eating disorder during the holiday season. These tips are meant to make the holidays less stressful for you and provide you with opportunities to strengthen your commitment to yourself and your recovery.
1. Trust your meal plan.
If you are in recovery from an eating disorder, you and your dietitian should have established some sort of eating framework to help you heal. This often includes guidance for meal/snack timing, balance and structure.
It could be hard to trust yourself, your hunger and fullness signals, other people or your beliefs about food…but trusting your meal plan will bring you a lot of peace and less emotional distress, especially during the holiday season.
The goal of a meal plan in ED recovery is to eliminate shame and lead you back to your body and it’s needs. While that’s essential all year round, setting the meal plan aside through the holidays will leave you vulnerable during a particularly difficult time of year. Your eating disorder can easily wiggle it’s way through the cracks in a meal plan, influencing your food decisions and putting you at risk for relapse.
Take some time each night to think through the next day and mentally prepare for each meal and snack. Commit to sticking with your plan, which will free up mental energy and save decision-making capacity for other things. You do not need to earn your food or compensate during the holidays (or any time of the year) by skipping meals and snacks.
2. Identify a support system and allow them to help you with eating.
Is there someone that will be with you at holiday gatherings that can support you? They could help you get out of a triggering conversation or could eat what you are eating to help you not feel alone in following your meal plan. They can also engage you in a conversation as a distraction from any anxiety you may be feeling.
3. Remember that no food is off limits.
While I’ve encouraged you to stick with the structure your meal plan provides, it should be flexible enough to allow for ANY food. And, as I remind my own clients often, the meal plan is never an upper limit, only a baseline with wiggle room.
There are no rules for what you can and can’t have, during the holidays and beyond. It’s helpful to remember that you have full permission to eat and feel satisfied all year round, not just during the holidays. That will be a lie your eating disorder tries to tell you, but your body needs nourishment and satisfaction all day, everyday.
4. Work with your therapist and dietitian to make a plan for each holiday event.
I use a lot of visualization techniques with my clients so they are mentally prepared and have thought through possible scenarios. I also have them create a list of foods they would want to enjoy, and even write a permission slip to themselves for enjoying those foods. If triggering comments come up, they can refer back to our plan and stay true to themselves.
Think through your own holiday permission slip: how do you want to feel, think and act about food and your body this holiday season? How can you continue to push toward ED recovery even with so many food abundant holidays?
5. If there are particular family members and friends that you know could create uncomfortable situations, don’t hesitate to set boundaries.
You need to look out for yourself and make your recovery a priority. Verbalizing boundaries can be done with kindness and compassion, and is actually a great way to communicate to others how they can best support you. At the very least, set mental boundaries to not take on other people’s stuff. What they say represents them, not you.
Create space for yourself and your recovery this holiday season. That may be literal – you may think about positioning yourself at a different table or area if needed. This could be especially important if particular family members or friends make judgmental comments about food or talk about their diet and food rules.
Another recommendation related to this: keep your social media feeds free from food or body obsessive accounts. Alternately, follow those who make you feel positive about food and your body.
6. Make memories and find meaning in what you are celebrating.
This can help put the holiday, and the food, in perspective. Why is celebrating the holiday important to you? You can enjoy the sociality and satisfaction that comes from holiday meals while recognizing that it’s just one part of the celebration. Doing that will likely make the food feel less overwhelming.
Lastly, if you find yourself relapsing or using eating disorder behaviors, reach out for help. Dismiss any guilt that may come as a result and recommit to yourself, your recovery and a healthier direction moving forward. Even if that cycle repeats itself numerous times during the holiday season, all that matters is that you recommit to the process of recovery each time. In essence, that IS recovery.