For many, one of the highlights of the holiday season is the joy of sitting down at a traditional table filled with a smorgasbord of food.
Unfortunately, for someone living with an eating disorder, the holidays can be a time of dread instead of ease. For individuals who struggle with their relationship to food, the holidays can be anxiety-filled and sometimes even traumatic.
Navigating triggers, old thought patterns, or invasive questions from well-meaning family members can all contribute to a higher blood pressure and maybe even a desire to skip the holiday dinner this year.
But managing an eating disorder and enjoying holiday traditions is possible. Here’s what you can do to prepare for your next gathering.
Create solutions ahead of time.
The holidays present a great opportunity to confront food-related fear and anxiety (especially if working with a professional to set up an exposure plan.)
Anticipating certain situations and creating a plan for responding is one way to reduce anxiety. Instead of avoiding discomfort, think about how you might be able to plan for certain solutions before the event.
A few examples of planning might include:
- Journaling or asking yourself questions that focus on your recovery, such as, “What are some of the foods that I know will be served and that I actually really like?" or "What will I tell myself after I eat something I like, but that I feel was 'bad' for me?" Reflecting on your progress before attending any events can help you stay grounded and focused on the positive steps you’re taking each day.
- Practicing responses to family members or friends who might comment on your nutritional or lifestyle choices. If someone is preparing a special dish, think about how you might make them feel appreciated despite what selections you make for your plate.
- Eating a healthy meal that you feel good about before attending the holiday party.
Set boundaries and stick to your routine.
Setting boundaries with loved ones is another way to preserve your mental health. A strong boundary can help set realistic limits in a relationship or activity with another person. Think about a boundary that makes sense for you. This might be:
- The right to privacy.
- The right to say no to certain foods.
- The right to leave the dinner table, if necessary.
Boundaries can also help you stick to your routine. You might find yourself refraining from eating, exercising profusely, or making other changes to your lifestyle to try to lose or control your weight before the holidays. This behavior can backfire. Instead, follow your meal plan.
Following your routine can help keep your mind clear. But remember, if you “slip up” — or even if you stuff yourself a few times during the holidays — it won't significantly affect your weight in the long run. The holidays offer a good opportunity to practice rational thinking as part of your routine.
Communicate with those closest to you.
When people don’t know you have an eating disorder, they can seem really insensitive even when they don’t mean to be. Or, sometimes people might “know,” but they don’t really understand what it feels like to struggle with an eating disorder or how to offer support.
If you can, be open with your closest family members about your eating disorder and some of the situations you find most uncomfortable or triggering. At the holiday meal, they can run offense for you and try to help thwart certain situations.
If helpful, you can also remind your family (and yourself) that the holidays are about time together, not your eating disorder. And most of all, make sure you are kind to yourself. You are growing, learning, and working towards being a healthier human being. That is worth acknowledgment and celebration.
Below are a few resources for additional help during this time.
These resources can help you or a loved one in a time of need:
National Eating Disorders Association Helpline: (800) 931-2237
National Eating Disorders Association Online Chat
Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor
If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, do not use this site. Instead, call 911 or use one of these emergency resources for immediate help.