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Food-Driven Holidays and Eating Disorders: A Survival Guide

By Jessica Smith, BSN, RN

The holiday season is once again upon us. Does that make your mind wander to wintry scenes, family fun, yummy food, and laughter with loved ones around a table? If yes, you are fortunate to experience the holidays the way they were intended – with joy, beauty, pleasure, and community.

Those of us with a history of disordered eating tend to experience the holidays much differently. We may have a profound sense of dread due to the centrality of food and eating. Spending time with our families of origin can add and additional burden. This is a challenging time of year for many of us, but there are ways to make it bearable. By following a few general rules before, during, and after stressful experiences, we can experience the holidays in a brand-new way.

Before: Plan Ahead

Prepare in advance – It is never too early to prepare when facing a potentially triggering event. Cynthia M. Bulik, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Eating Disorders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says, “We start prepping people [we treat for eating disorders] for Thanksgiving about a month ahead of time.” Such planning can take many forms, and it will vary based upon your present needs and personal experiences.

Do not restrict – Abide by your meal plan as much as possible, and ensure adequate nutrition with well-timed meals and snacks. The temptation and cultural tradition is to deny food until the holiday meal, followed by consumption far past the point of comfortable fullness. Purposeful restriction in anticipation of a binge is disordered. You will feel better if you nourish yourself well, and you will also avoid slipping into old maladaptive patterns. Keep in mind restriction can be both physical (caloric) and psychological (types of food). No food is “bad” or off-limits to you unless you have a medical allergy.

Identify resources – Make every effort to secure a session with your therapist both before and after stressful gatherings. While it’s easy to skip sessions for travel and typical holiday season busyness, you must keep these appointments. Reach out ahead of time and ask a trusted friend or loved one to be available to you if you are struggling. Better yet, ask if they can join you! The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) offers a helpline run by trained volunteers, and it provides both phone and online instant messaging options.

Gather pro-recovery affirmations – The internet and social media can be valuable tools for discovering positive recovery messages and affirmations. Choose your favorites to keep with you during your difficult days. I have an entire folder dedicated to eating disorder recovery saved on my Instagram account, and I refer to it when I need encouragement.

Practice some responses to diet culture commentary – I have become quite adept at ignoring comments about diets and body size. I am not opposed to challenging diet culture rhetoric, but sometimes redirection is less inflammatory and shuts it down faster. When it seems necessary to respond, I find it is best to be direct and concise:

“Oh mom, you aren’t bad for eating cake; it’s not like you stole it! Could you tell me more about [insert any other topic of conversation]?”

“Yeah, bodies change. I prefer to focus on my core values instead of what I look like.” Pivot into a conversation about what is important to you.

“I’ve had enough to eat, but I would love to take some pie home with me. Thank you.” You can choose to eat the food or not. That decision belongs to you.

Set some boundaries – It is our responsibility to teach others our boundaries. Healthy boundaries are a good thing, and they can serve as guidelines for people supporting us in our recovery. My family members are now aware that I will not tolerate conversations about dieting, body shaming, or categorizing foods as “good” or “bad.” People are fallible and will occasionally slip up, but I will leave the social gathering if my boundaries are continually crossed or ignored. My recovery comes first, and so does yours.

Find joy in the season – This time of year is bustling with activities. Prioritize the ones that bring you joy. Seek out the area’s best Christmas lights. Sponsor an underprivileged child for the holidays. Buy yourself a new pair of cozy pajamas. Dress up your dog. Whatever it is that makes you smile, do that!

During: Be Mindful

Know your limits – Attending too many food-focused events can lead to emotional overwhelm, especially in early recovery. While challenging ourselves is necessary for personal growth, it would be wise to work with your care team to identify your limitations this year. If your relationship with family is contentious, consider a friendly gathering instead. I have been known to keep visits under two hours with certain family members. If leaving isn’t feasible, then I will take a quick walk around the neighborhood. Honoring my needs helps maintain both my recovery and my sanity.

Wear comfortable clothing – Many of us in eating disorder recovery feel at ease wearing loose clothing with some stretch. Stomachs do expand when they have food in them, and this may lead to fitted clothing feeling tight across the abdomen following a meal. Avoid this potential trigger by wearing whatever will be comfortable for you. There is absolutely nothing wrong or harmful about the natural expansion of your stomach and even occasional bloating, but loose clothing can help decrease its discomfort.

Work with the food, not against it – When food is present in abundance, and you lack control over its preparation, you may notice your stress levels begin to increase. One way to approach buffet lines is to have someone else plate your food. You are not required to eat it all, but sometimes having someone else do the plating eases anxiety. If the food is served family-style, don’t overthink what you choose. Include items from all food groups, including dessert. While you are eating, try to enjoy what you are eating. Notice the various colors, tastes, and textures. It may feel scary, but this food was prepared with love and intended for enjoyment. Resist the urge to categorize your food as good or bad – all foods fit. If you feel full, but there were foods you wanted to try, you have permission to take some home. You can choose not to eat them, but having the option wards off the mental restriction that can lead to bingeing later.

Remember the purpose – If you are struggling but cannot step away, try to remember the true meaning of the holiday you are celebrating. Observe the people around you and come up with one positive attribute for each of them. Choose five things for which you are grateful; it can be as simple as sunshine on your cheeks. Remind yourself this day is one of many, and this moment of struggle will not last forever.

Take a deep breath – There are a few grounding techniques I use when I become emotionally flooded. My favorite is called “box breathing” and is quite simple to execute. This technique, known in the medical world as diaphragmatic breathing, has been found to significantly lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels. By breathing in a specific pattern, people in research studies exhibited improved cognitive performance and reduced subjective and physiological feelings of stress. Box breathing can be done almost anywhere. To begin, close your eyes and place your feet flat on the floor. Breathe in through your nose while slowly counting to four. Keep your lungs filled with air and count slowly to four again. Finally, allow all the air to exit your lungs slowly for four seconds. Repeat the process for several minutes or until your nervous system calms down.

After: Debrief

Talk to someone – Meeting with your therapist after stressful encounters is of utmost importance. He or she can help you process through your experiences and, hopefully, celebrate your successes! If you don’t have a therapist, confide in a trusted friend who understands your story and can hold space for you as you share.

Write it all down – Even if you have a therapist, journaling is a valuable tool. Journaling has been shown to decrease blood pressure, strengthen the immune system, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. There is freedom in writing what is for your eyes only, unconcerned with outside opinions. Keeping a journal also provides the opportunity to revisit past experiences and reflect on how far you have come.

Avoid rumination – Our brains can sometimes replay stressful interactions that failed to reach a satisfactory conclusion. We rehash the event while altering the dialogue like the director of a play. Maybe you wish you had been more direct, or perhaps you lashed out in fear at someone you love. Regardless of the situation, it isn’t helpful to go over the scenario again and again in your mind. If a tough conversation needs to happen, make the call. If an apology is necessary, deliver it and move forward. What has transpired cannot be undone – it is now a growth opportunity.

Resist urges to compensate with exercise – If you feel the urge to make up for what you ate or how much, opt-out of exercise entirely. Exercise should never be used as punishment or penance. If you are someone who has a complicated relationship with exercise, explore the notion of joyful movement. Joyful movement is an approach to exercise emphasizing pleasure, fun, and appreciation of what our bodies can do.

Continue your recovery – Above all, choose recovery. It is easy to fall back into familiar disordered patterns as we attempt to cope with life’s challenges, but we must keep making the next right choice. An eating disorder has nothing good to offer us; it leads only to darkness and despair. Choose hope. Choose life. Choose recovery.

If you need help or would like additional information about the treatment of eating disorders, please contact us at The Meadows Ranch.