Tips for Navigating the Holidays With an Eating Disorder

People living with an eating disorder face a challenging time during the Christmas season. The many expectations about the holidays, the changes in usual everyday routines, and certain situations where they are expected to eat and be sociable combine with other factors causing stress anxiety, and conflicting feelings. It is crucial to foster a greater appreciation of the intricacies surrounding eating disorders during this difficult period.

Key takeaways:

Eating disorders during the holidays

A person living with an eating disorder can find the holiday season to be especially difficult. Anxiety levels can skyrocket due to the customary emphasis on eating as a key part of festivities.

There is a common perception that overindulgence is fundamental to the holiday season. This time of year makes it almost impossible to refrain from eating, and the pressure from others to 'indulge' may be frustrating or upsetting. It increases the pressure to eat and heightens anxiety about binging and purging.

Additionally, changes to your routine, whether they were established as part of your eating disorder or as part of your recovery, may also be challenging.

Finally, the holidays can be upsetting for families who are supporting a person with an eating issue. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to navigate these unique challenges that are linked to holiday events.

1. Make a plan with someone you trust

It is hard to reach out for help when eating disorder cravings become overpowering, and it may be much more difficult around the holidays when time is spent with family around the table. Naturally, extra pressure to eat may lead to fears of binge eating or being 'watched' at the dinner table. However, events need not spiral out of control. Choose someone you can trust and make a plan with them. When you feel a craving or anxiety building in your stomach, agree on a 'signal' that lets them know you're uncomfortable or need to leave the situation. This could be as simple as sending a text message, making a gesture, or saying a certain word.

'Fear foods' are high in calories and abound over the holiday season, including butter, sugar, fat, and even more carbohydrates than usual. Make your trusted friends aware of your 'fear foods,' and communicate your worries to them at several points during the day. Inform them how they can support your recovery and create a plan that works best for both of you.

2. Maintain a balanced perspective

Be conscious of 'all-or-nothing' ways of thinking that can lead to excessively high and rigid expectations. Maintain a balanced perspective, listen to your inner voice, and remind yourself: it's okay to eat what you like; it's only one day; and nothing terrible will happen if you break the rules. You may be tempted to overexercise, restrict, and purge to make up for eating more than usual. Recognize these thoughts are from your eating disorder, and you don't need to do these behaviors after eating.

3. Pay attention to hunger cues

Dietary restrictions place the body under continual stress and significantly alter natural hunger and fullness signals. If you've waited too long to eat between meals, you're more likely to feel ravenous and engage in binge eating. After quickly eating and feeling satisfied, you may feel as if you could eat more because your hunger cues are still activated.

After eating, and due to delayed gastric emptying, food stays in your stomach for a long time, which can make you feel overly full, bloated, sick, and generally unpleasant. Feeling too full and bloated after a meal can be a real trigger for eating disorder behaviors. Keep in mind that this is a temporary discomfort and that distractions, such as going for a walk or engaging in an activity, will help. Also, utilize positive self-talk; attempt to soothe your inner critic by replacing negative, critical thoughts with more soothing, comforting ones.

4. Avoid drinking too much alcohol

It's best to avoid drinking excessive amounts of alcohol any time of year. Unfortunately, alcohol usually plays a major role around the holidays, which can be problematic as it is a known risk factor for the perpetuation of an eating disorder — in particular, bulimia. Drinking large quantities of alcohol may lead to purging since alcohol is more easily eliminated from the body than food, particularly when the stomach is empty.

People with an eating disorder may drink to relieve their hunger and improve their mood. Instead, stay hydrated with water or tea, and remember to eat while drinking. Remember that alcohol is also a depressant, which may trigger eating disorder thoughts. Be aware of the negative thoughts that come up when you have a hangover, like the 'sad feeling.'

5. Make a deal with family

Ask your family not to comment on your looks, weight, or what you are eating. Set it up so that whoever is cooking knows you need to have some say in what you eat. If you are not in charge of cooking, try to say that, if possible, you would like to have some say in how the food is made.

6. Eat breakfast — set yourself up for success

Breakfast on Christmas morning in particular is important and will help you regulate your appetite. Having regular meals can help you control your blood sugar, which will keep you from feeling hungry before your big meal. If you eat breakfast and small snacks throughout the day, it will be easier to tell when you are hungry and when you are full.

7. Set boundaries

Establish good boundaries. Be assertive and say NO to anything that causes you discomfort. In the early stages of recovery, assertiveness can be difficult because of a desire to please others. If your grandmother gets upset because you didn't eat enough of her pie, that's not your fault. Do everything YOU think is necessary for your health and recovery while you are getting better. Stay on track with your plan, but don't be too strict with yourself if you feel like branching out and trying something new. It's OK to give in to your cravings and have another cookie if you feel like you need to.

8. Take some time to collect your thoughts

There might be some interactions or conversations with family members that can become problematic or even harmful to your recovery. It is OK for you to make your excuses and leave the room. Alternatively, change the subject or hang out with the younger members of your family, play with the family pet, or step outside for some fresh air. This will give you some time to collect your thoughts and keep you from becoming involved in a possibly tricky interaction.

9. Practice self-care

Most people, even those who are not in recovery, have difficulty sticking to their diets over the holidays. Be gentle with yourself. Every day, you are doing your best, and you will do your best over the holidays. You won't be perfect, and that's okay. It gets easier to control mealtime anxiety and eat instinctively with each passing year.

You'll get there in the end. However, in the meantime, offer yourself the same kindness and compassion that you would show to someone that you love.

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