Surviving and Thriving With an Eating Disorder: Skills for Holiday Celebrations
Holidays are for celebrating, and whether it’s creating traditional dishes in the kitchen with family or gathering around with friends for a summertime barbeque, food takes center stage. For people with eating disorders, holidays can be very difficult times. The combination of large amounts of food, family dynamics, and feelings of anxiety and loneliness can be overwhelming and too much to bear. If you are facing down an upcoming holiday with fear or dread, take hope. There are things you and your family can do to prepare for challenges and still enjoy the magic of holiday seasons.
Make a Plan!
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, you know that part of recovery means learning about yourself, setting boundaries, and asking for what you need. Your treatment team can help you to develop a plan for dealing with the holidays that fits your goals. Cognitive behavioral and dialectical behavioral (CBT/DBT) treatment modalities, which are used in all levels of eating disorder care, are great for developing coping skills and self-soothing techniques for distressing situations. Psych Central (www.psychcentral.com) suggests some great, soothing tips based in the mindful approach of DBT:
- Find meaning in the season
- Take a vacation! Muscle relaxation, baths, snuggling with a favorite pet, reading a great book….give yourself a break and enjoy the moment!
- Give back. Get out of your head and into the deeper purpose of the season by volunteering or helping neighbors.
- Breathe deeply and stay in the moment
Take Care of YOU!
This is where knowing your limits and honoring them comes in. During the holidays we are usually surrounded by people we haven’t seen since the last family gathering. Inevitably, tensions flare as tricky family dynamics rear their heads. When you’re struggling with an eating disorder, even the most well-intentioned comments from long-lost family members can be triggering and downright hurtful. When all you want to do is make it through the day, these uncomfortable conversations can leave you feeling trapped.
Even if it’s hard to honor your needs, the holidays are a prime time to practice. Enlist a trusted friend or family member to help you slip away for a few moments and regroup when it all becomes too much. If you know that there is a particular gathering planned that will be super triggering, it’s ok to sit it out. Trust yourself, and when in doubt ask to talk it out.
In the Kitchen
Food is a centerpiece of holiday celebrations, and for people with eating disorders just being in the kitchen can create tremendous stress. Many treatment programs work to prepare clients for food-related challenges by offering kitchen skills groups and experiential activities designed to decrease anxiety and increase confidence. At Center for Discovery, for example, clients spend time in the kitchen preparing meals and snacks, participating in food challenges, and learning to plan meals and grocery shop. Anxieties around food are faced and challenged in the moment so clients can put coping skills into action and finally begin to experience comfort around food.
The National Eating Disorders Association (www.nationaleatingdisorders .org) suggests baby-step challenges at holiday gatherings. Review the food offered and make mindful choices. To take the challenge a step further, take a portion of a food you love but wouldn’t normally allow yourself to have. Then, stay in the moment and savor the tastes. Notice your surroundings and focus on the parts of the season you enjoy. Breathe.
A Note For Families
If your loved one suffers from an eating disorder, you may stand by and watch helplessly as another holiday season threatens their joy and well-being. How can you help when you don’t even know how to begin? First and foremost, get educated about eating disorders. Be involved in your loved one’s treatment. Learn about and make every effort to understand what they are struggling with and why. Then, be patient. Ask how to help. Express your love and concern.
The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (www.anad.org) suggests being flexible and willing to start some new traditions that don’t focus on food. Your loved one has interests and hobbies. Tap into those at holiday time. Does your loved one like to sing? Go caroling together. Is crafting a favorite activity? Create beautiful holiday-themed treasures together.
Holidays are challenging for people with eating disorders, but they don’t have to be a time filled with fear and isolation. Shifting perspective and coming together as a family to celebrate with love and support has the potential to help your loved one feel joy and comfort again- even around the foods that create anxiety.
Matta, C. (2008). Holiday Stress Survival Tips. Psych Central, www.psychcentral.com
McLaughlin, A. (2013). Lessons in Self-Care: 5 Ways to Survive and Thrive Through the Holidays When You Have an Eating Disorder. National Eating Disorders Associations,www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
Surviving the Holidays With an Eating Disorder. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, www.anad.org