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Navigating the Holidays with an Eating Disorder

December 24th, 2021


The holiday season is commonly associated with celebrating traditions and spending time with family. While many focus on travel, parties, and shopping, this is also an important time of year to be keenly aware of our mental health. We can start by taking time to check in with ourselves and using healthy coping skills to manage stress. This is especially important for those suffering from an eating disorder because there is often increased anxiety related to food, body weight, and body image around the holidays.

Common worries and challenges during this time include overeating and feeling guilty after, sticking to a meal plan, hearing comments about food choices or how much they’re eating, or their appearance. For loved ones who want to offer support during this time, it is important to understand the individual experience and effective ways to offer support to make the most of the holiday and enjoy it together.

5 Tips For Navigating An Eating Disorder Around The Holidays

5 Tips For Navigating An Eating Disorder Around The Holidays

  1. Plan ahead: Know your limits and set boundaries

    Choose the event(s) you will attend based on what is most important to you during the holiday season – including the people you want to see and events you will enjoy while avoiding stress. Because this can be hard to anticipate, it can help to set a boundary for the number of events you attend so you don’t feel overwhelmed. It is also a good idea to set a boundary with the timeline for how long you will stay at a given event.

This timeline can be flexible. For example, if you plan to only stay for two hours but find yourself having a great time, it’s okay to stay longer and enjoy yourself. Know your limits. If you find yourself having difficulty coping, know that it’s okay to leave.

Finally, set boundaries with people you may see that tend to be invalidating. Limit exposure and spend more time with those who make you feel supported.

  1. Meet with your dietician (or plan on your own) to manage your holiday meal

    Meeting with your dietician to discuss your concerns about sticking to your meal plan during the holidays, challenging yourself with new foods and desserts, or avoiding urges to restrict, binge, or purge can be very helpful. Having this guidance can help you go into your holiday events with an extra sense of security.

Many of your loved ones may not be aware of your meal plan, so explaining it to someone you feel comfortable with can be helpful.

If you are unsure the event you’re attending will have food that meets your meal plan, offer to bring a dish that you will enjoy and will help you stay on track. When in doubt, stick to your meal plan! If you feel comfortable having more of your favorite holiday dish or challenging yourself with new food or dessert, that’s great!

But if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable, set up your plate based on your meal plan and remind yourself this is the nutrition your body needs.

  1. Find a support partner

Choose someone you feel comfortable talking to about your eating disorder. You can let them know about concerns you have related to the holiday, your plan to deal with stress that day, and how they can help.

Knowing you have someone you feel comfortable and safe discussing these things with, who is available for support, will help you feel more comfortable and allow you to enjoy the holiday.

If you find yourself at an event without a support person, you can always plan to text or call someone if you need support.

  1. Meet with your therapist before your holiday event

    Discuss your concerns about the holiday and plan for how to most effectively cope with any difficult experiences.
  2. Make a coping plan and try your best to stick to it

    Write down the coping skills you find most helpful on a post-it note you can keep in your pocket or have them readily available on your phone. If you feel upset, you can look at your list and use one of these skills
What Can I Do To Alleviate The Stress Of Eating Disorder Triggers? 

What Can I Do To Alleviate The Stress Of Eating Disorder Triggers?

Practice Mindfulness—Be Present!

Remind yourself that you are there to celebrate the holiday, spend time with people you care about, and enjoy yourself. Try your best to be present. If you find it difficult at times, it’s okay to walk into another room or step outside. Take a few minutes alone to practice deep breathing or a grounding exercise. Take part in games and catch up with friends and family members.

If you do not feel comfortable talking too much about yourself, ask them how their year has been or talk about current events.

Practice Self-Compassion

Remember this is a difficult time, so be kind to yourself. Most of us find it easier to be kind and supportive to others and are hard on ourselves. Ask yourself how you would treat someone you care about that is in the same position you are. Then say those things to yourself, and give yourself a break! Remind yourself that you are trying – it’s okay to struggle and it’s okay to need support.

Challenge Negative Thoughts/Cognitive Distortions

Recognize negative thoughts you have about food and weight, and ones related to the holiday. Practice reframing those thoughts. For example, reframing a typical “all or nothing” negative thought/cognitive distortion like “If I eat a dessert today, I will gain a lot of weight.” to “It’s okay to have dessert, especially on the holiday. This is something I used to enjoy this time of year, and it’s not realistic to think one dessert will impact my weight.”

When you find yourself having a negative thought, ask yourself questions such as, “Is there evidence for this?” “Would my therapist or dietician agree?” Then come up with a more realistic or positive statement.

Finally, others are often unaware of the impact comments about food and appearance can have. Try to avoid this focus, and remember you’re there to enjoy the holiday and those around you.

Helping Loved Ones Cope With An Eating Disorder During The Holidays

Helping Loved Ones Cope With An Eating Disorder During The Holidays

Having read this post, you now have a deeper understanding of how someone may be experiencing the holidays and strategies they may use to help navigate. If you have a loved one who is struggling with an eating disorder or has, you may be asking, “How can I help?”

4 Tips For Navigating A Loved One's Eating Disorder Around The Holidays:

  1. Ask before the event if they would like some extra support that day. Asking before helps because it allows them to let you know specifically how you can be helpful that day and also avoid overwhelming them that day.
  2. Be sure to have enough food options that allow everyone at the event to have a balanced meal. Make sure to avoid “low carb meals” or any other type of diet-focused meal setup. Instead, think of food from the “all foods fit” model, in which all food is good for us and may have a place in our meal plan, rather than categorizing foods as “good/bad” or “healthy/unhealthy”.
  3. Avoid being “the food police.” Refrain from commenting on the specific foods people put on their plates, how much they are eating, or how they are eating. Also, be aware of comments you may think are positive, such as “good job” or “you’re eating very well.” This can be upsetting and place more focus on an already difficult subject.
  4. Lastly, focus on spending time with them and catching up about other areas of their life, or talking about current events. Avoid commenting on appearance or asking about the recovery process. For example, instead of saying “You look great,” try “It’s so good to see you!”

Written By: Dr. Nicole Ortiz, PhD

Clarity Clinic

At Clarity Clinic, we have highly trained staff who specialize in therapy and psychiatry services. To learn more about how we can support your mental health, call Clarity Clinic at (312) 815-9660 or schedule an appointment today.

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