Surviving the Holidays when you have an Eating Disorder

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Joleen Wilson - Dietary Manager

            Joleen Wilson, RD/LD, CNSC, CBIS

Written by Joleen Wilson, RD/LD, CNSC, CBIS, Dietitian for Pathway to Eating Disorders Treatment at Brookhaven Hospital

Thanksgiving and Christmas, with their undeniable focus on food and disruption of everyday routine, can wreak havoc in a person’s life who is currently dealing with or in recovery from an eating disorder (ED).  Saying, “Don’t think about food or your eating disorder!” during the holidays is like telling someone standing in a blizzard to ignore the cold.  Although holidays shouldn’t always be about food, you will have to face the inevitable and come prepared with a game plan!

For many, this is the only time of the year when you get an opportunity to see your family and we know that if you are dealing with an eating disorder, this can become a source of stress.  It may be that you fear arguments over how much or what you are eating, comments from relatives on your diet or appearance, or the stressful family environment may in itself trigger ED behavior.  If you can, try to tell at least one person at the gathering about your ED, as having at least one compassionate family member present can help support and protect you from unhelpful situations.  If you feel unable to talk about your fears and solutions, it might be easier to write it down and show it to them or have someone speak on your behalf.  Take this time to talk with loved ones about important issues: life decisions, victories, challenges, fears, dreams, goals, spirituality, relationships, and your feelings about them.  Allow important themes to be present.  Allow yourself to have fun rather than rigidly focusing only on food or body concerns.

Often ED stress might be triggered by a feeling of loss of control and fear of unknown situations with its many food-oriented social events and unusual meal plans and times.  “Public” eating can be hard, as can the “excess” of food available, fear foods, and focus on plenty.  Try to envision in advance what food is usually offered at your family gatherings and factor these foods into your meal plan.  Enlist the help of a Registered Dietitian if you are having difficulty.  You could also bring your own food to share, which may act as a safe haven when and if ED thoughts creep in.  Please keep in mind that setting rigid guidelines on what, when, or where you’ll eat can backfire!  You’ll feel under even more pressure if you have agreed, for example, to eat a certain amount.  So try to be flexible.

Try not to let these thoughts become the negative focus of your day.  Sometimes it can be helpful to distract yourself before, after, or even during a meal to keep yourself from negative thoughts.  Make efforts to focus on the aspects of the holiday season you find beautiful.  Seeking opportunities to help others with tasks, such as wrapping gifts or running errands can shift your mood toward the positive.  Another idea is to have a friend on “speed dial” during the holidays, or, if you have a freak out moment during a get-together, text your bestie an SOS.  Doing so eases tension, turning sadness into inspiration and, often, laughter.  If none of the above work, make sure you know where your “quick exit” is and how you’ll recognize when it’s time to leave the scene and get connected with needed support.  The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) also has a support line that you can contact anytime.  Text “NEDA” to 741741 and you will be connected with a live person to talk you through the issue.

Lastly, avoid “overstressing” or “overbooking” yourself.  A lower sense of stress can decrease the perceived need to turn to eating disordered behavior.  Cut down on unnecessary events and obligations and leave time for relaxation, contemplation, reflection, spiritual renewal, simple service, and enjoying the small yet most important things in life.

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