It’s that time of year. The time that is both my favorite and least favorite for vastly different reasons. The time that is full of comfort, relaxation, togetherness, the perfect weather, and just… good vibes (for lack of a better word). But it’s also the time that reminds me of some of the hardest moments of my life related to eating disorder recovery.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are often difficult for those in recovery. These holidays are, in part, centered around food and family. This can create a lot of anxiety about eating fear foods or foods you may not be comfortable with, eating around people you aren’t used to spending a lot of time with, the possibility of family members making comments about your eating or body or other disordered talk (the “diet starts tomorrow” talk is unfortunately rather common), or other overwhelming aspects of the holidays.
First of all, I want you all to know that I see you and I hear you. This time of year can bring up a lot of emotion, even for those not struggling with an eating disorder or mental health, and, regardless of the reason, what you’re feeling is valid. I have included some reminders and tips for surviving the holiday season below. We’ll get through this together!
*Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. These tips and reminders are what have helped me. This is not medical advice, but personal experience. Additionally, I know that holidays look different this year due to COVID-19 but these tips can still apply!
- Create your support system. This can look a number of different ways. If you are particularly close with your entire family, you can make sure everyone knows what topics you aren’t comfortable discussing during a meal and then make a plan to play a game or watch a holiday movie while eating for some healthy distraction. If you aren’t comfortable letting your entire family know what you are dealing with, you may consider having a discussion with the person you are closest to before a meal and designate them as your support person. You can sit together at a meal so they can give you some reassurance if you are having a hard time and you can even come up with a signal if you start to experience some anxiety (or if another family member brings up an uncomfortable topic) so you can both step away from the table and take a minute to breathe. You could even ask this person to prepare a plate for you if you believe that would be helpful. You can keep a good friend and supporter on speed dial if you need to step away from the family festivities and talk to someone about what you’re going through.
- Create your ideal eating environment. I understand that it is important to challenge yourself in your recovery and this can include sitting with your entire family during a holiday meal, but it’s okay if you need to make a different choice to help yourself get through the meal successfully. For example, there are times when I have sat at a separate table with just my mom or my sister to minimize the overwhelming feeling of sitting at a table with everyone. I was still able to challenge myself with the foods I was eating, but minimize the added stress of eating with my entire family.
- Breathe. This is such a simple but effective tip. Anxiety can make our entire body tense up, and this includes our breath. Deep breaths can help you ‘reset’ your sympathetic nervous system, remind you what you are experiencing in the moment is not life-or-death, and relax. This can also help with physical discomfort when eating because anxiety can cause a loss of appetite and prevent one from getting adequate fuel. If you take deep breaths to help your body relax and release tension, you can reconnect with your hunger and fullness cues.
- Stick to your routine. Even though you may be eating different foods than usual, make sure to still eat the number of meals and snacks you usually do. Not only can this minimize anxiety by giving your meals a sense of predictability during an uncertain time, but it’s also so important to continue to fuel your body even if eating looks different during and sticking to your routine is a good way to do this.
- Come up with a plan. If you see a therapist and dietician for help with your eating disorder, make sure to speak with them before the holidays about the best coping mechanisms for anxiety during this time and strategies to make sure your body is adequately fueled, even with all the extra stress. See your treatment team as a resource; they are there to help you!
- You have permission to eat anything you crave. Remember that food is fuel and calories are units of energy. You need to eat to survive and have the energy to fully enjoy this time with your family. Eat when you are hungry. If something you consider a ‘fear food’ looks good to you (for example, I am a big fan of some apple pie and ice cream), put some on your plate! Not only are you fueling your body, but you are fueling your mind by allowing yourself to experience the holidays.
- Be kind to yourself. You deserve to enjoy this time! Don’t let your eating disorder convince you that you are doing something wrong. Honoring your hunger and fullness and enjoying yourself is always a good idea!
- Every victory counts! Celebrate and congratulate yourself for conquering a fear food or getting through a difficult meal. You did it! You deserve to be celebrated for how far you have come.
- The holidays are about much more than food. They’re about gratitude for the good things in life and spending time with loved ones. Shift your focus from the food to those around you and the relationships you are thankful for. Remember that these people love you for who you are, not for what you look like.
- Above all, know that you are capable. Thanksgiving is one day a year and you will get through it no matter what. You got this!