by Lauren Harding, Eating Recovery Coach and Counseling Intern
The holiday season can bring a significant amount of joy; however, it also presents its fair share of challenges. There is an expectation that the next few months are the best time of the year, which can be especially daunting for those who struggle with mental health issues.
For individuals who struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating, the holidays pose unique difficulties. Between the strong emphasis on food, diet talk, and that uncle who comments on your weight each year, the holiday season may be something that you are dreading. The “busy-ness” of this time of year, lack of routine, social experiences, and painful memories can further exacerbate disordered eating, anxiety, or depressive symptoms.
I started talking to my clients who struggle with eating disorders about the holiday season in September. Already so many of these individuals are worrying about who they will see, if they will be able to keep their exercise routine, and how much holiday food they can “allow” themselves to eat. They are already preoccupied with the “what ifs” surrounding the holidays and planning their “get back on track” strategy for January.
In all reality, their anxiety surrounding the holidays makes sense. We all have the aunt Karen who makes her cauliflower mashed potatoes and brags about her new diet. We have the distant cousin who tells everyone about their new exercise routine. We have the grandma who lets you know if you’ve gained or lost weight.
And let’s face it, there is a lot of delicious food. Our culture connects and celebrates using food. Many families even have specific traditions surrounding the holidays with food. Christmas Eve I grew up eating “Cioppino” (fish soup) and fresh baked bread. I have a friend who always makes tamales on New Year’s Eve with her family. These can be positive opportunities allowing you to connect and be with those that you love.
I want you to know that you are not alone if you are feeling anxious approaching the holidays. I know that with eating disorder recovery, the holidays require serious strength and courage. I wanted to share a few tips to help you to navigate these next few months and provide some skills to enable you to maintain your recovery.
Meet with your treatment team and come up with a specific plan. Make sure to include your therapist and dietician as you process what might come up this season that could be triggering. Identify coping skills or statements that you can tell yourself in the moment that you are struggling. Visualize and practice with your therapist. Remember: Being scared in recovery is normal, but you don’t have to let that fear control your actions.
As mentioned above there might be family members or friends who use weight-related or diet talk. Come up with a few strategies of how you could handle these situations. It can be uncomfortable to set boundaries. But remember, diet and weight talk is not very interesting, and is never helpful. You have the right to change the subject or ask if you can talk about something more meaningful. You have the right to walk away and take a break. You can give yourself permission to tell your aunt Karen that you choose to live in a “diet-talk free zone”, or that you are trying to focus on other aspects of the holiday season.
True strength is not denying yourself food or avoiding certain foods. True strength requires challenging yourself, despite what the eating disorder self might be telling you. Be gentle with yourself as you take these uncomfortable steps. Practice self-care. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to a friend, or a child. We are not looking for perfection but for progress. What small step can you take these next few months to help you in your recovery journey? If you need to decompress, leave the room for a few minutes. You don’t have to wait until you go home to take a break. Take some time to breath, feel, and experience the calming stillness that is always there within you, despite all of the noise.
What do the holidays mean to you? Reflect on this. Focus your time and attention on what you are grateful for, and what you want to remember 5 years from now. If you find yourself focused too much on the food, focus on the process of making it with someone you love. Meaning leads to meaningful. Learn about why your family holds certain traditions, and what they enjoy most about them. Learn about holiday customs and what those mean. This can shift your focus away from the eating disorder, and help you to focus on the things that actually matter this holiday experience.