Updated: Dec 6, 2019
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, you know how difficult the holidays can be. Celebrations and traditions almost always include food, which can be really challenging for someone who is struggling to eat normally. It may seem impossible to make it through the holidays, but you can do it! Here are some guidelines for making your holiday celebrations more manageable while in recovery from an eating disorder.
Make a Plan. Make a plan with your treatment team ahead of time. Figure out where you will be, what you will doing, what you will be eating, and who you will be with. Make sure you stick to your dietary guidelines. Figure out which eating disorder behaviors might be tempting during holiday get-togethers. For example, will you run into a scale in someone's bathroom? Will you be tempted to skip a meal to make up for eating a larger meal? Are you returning home to an environment where you used to engage in eating disorder behaviors like purging? How can you avoid a triggering environment? Maybe you will need to bring an extra snack if you know that food won't be ready when it's time for you to honor your hunger. Having a plan in place helps prepare you for challenges that may arise, and decreases anxiety leading up to the event.
Review Your Coping Skills. If you've made a list of coping skills during treatment, pull those out and remind yourself what they are. If you haven't yet, make a list of effective coping skills. Evaluate your coping skills. Do all of your coping skills still work? Do you need to change or add some coping skills? If you have deep-breathing or meditation on your list of coping skills, it will be helpful to practice those skills before holiday events. Train your body to respond to your deep breathing skills ahead of time, so that when you need them they will be more effective. If you're looking for an easy coping skill for anxiety, check out my favorite relaxation technique.
You may also want to add some positive affirmations to your coping skills. You could even keep these on your phone for reference when you need some extra encouragement. Some useful positive affirmations are, "You are more than what you eat." "Just be yourself." "Sticking to recovery is easier in the long run than giving in to the eating disorder." "Self-care is not selfish." "You are a person first, a body second." You can also incorporate some ways to appreciate your body.
Avoid Fat Talk. It seems like the holidays bring out a side in people where they start talking about how much they eat, how much they weigh, how they intend to "make up" for the holidays, and special diets they intend to try. If you find that those you are celebrating with start a triggering fat-talk conversation, you can change the subject, join another conversation, suggest an activity, or even give yourself a little time out. You have the power to control your environment.
Maintain your Boundaries. You (if you're an adult) get to decide how much to eat. Don't feel pressure from Aunt Emmy to take another helping of her pie if you already feel satisfied. Don't feel pressure from your dad to skip your favorite food. It's ok to indulge a bit during the holidays, but it's also ok to take a break from eating when you feel full. You may also need to assert your boundaries when there is an activity or conversation going on that doesn't suit you. Don't volunteer for tasks you can't complete. If making neighbor treats is too overwhelming, skip it this year. You do you!
Enlist a Support Person. Make sure that you have a buddy with you at each event. This can be your recovery support person if they will be there, or you may have to find someone else. Your support person could be your mom, spouse, brother, sister, or friend. Make sure your support person knows that you are recovering from an eating disorder. Share your plan and coping skills with them and ask them to help you stick to your plan. Ask them to help you avoid triggering situations. Ask them to make sure you don't spend too much time alone. Sometimes just knowing that you have a supportive buddy will make the holidays bearable.
Identify an Exit Strategy. Sometimes the holiday event becomes too overwhelming, and relapse becomes imminent. If the only way to avoid relapse is by leaving, that is acceptable. Set up a signal with your support person that indicates that you need to leave. You can always try again at another get-together. If it's impossible to leave, you can at least take a walk or find an empty space. Maybe all you need is a short break to do some deep breathing before returning to the action.
Do the Next Right Thing. Mistakes happen. They don't have to. But they could. If you find yourself in a situation where you engaged in an eating disorder behavior, don't let it ruin the day. You don't have to wait until tomorrow to get back on track. You can do the next right thing in that moment. Your coping plan should have ways to make restitution for engaging in an eating disorder behavior (like drinking boost after purging). Make restitution and be honest with your support person. Forgive yourself. And just keep going. Recovery isn't perfect, and you aren't perfect. Do your best and don't give up!
The holidays are meant to be a time of enjoyment, celebration, connection, and kindness. You can still feel these wonderful feelings even if you are recovering from an eating disorder. I hope you will use these tips to make the most of the holiday season. Please comment on your best tips for maintaining recovery during the holidays, so others can benefit from your wisdom! I'd love to hear it!