Tips for staying on the eating disorder recovery track throughout the holiday

Published: November 25, 2013

For individuals recovering from eating disorders, an all too familiar, yet unwelcome fear can arise as thoughts about holiday eating, weight, and social gatherings near. Recollections of past holidays that were fraught with triggers and slips, can also bring up painful memories and worries about staying healthy while sharing precious time with friends and family. These very thoughts may result in feelings of isolation, anxiety, defeat, and even despair. As one individual wrote, “You are forced to sit and face distressing thoughts and emotions [while] surrounded by people who can enjoy the food and company without a second thought. Not only are you struggling with the disordered thoughts, but you’re then struggling with struggling.”

Yet, I have the pleasure of knowing many remarkable men and women who have made it through the holidays successfully while recovering from an eating disorder. Most of these individuals learned what worked for them through trial and error, helpful professional guidance along the way. Recovery is never linear, but knowing that others have navigated the holidays successfully, provides those still suffering with renewed hope that they too can overcome the obsessive thoughts and worries that complicate this time of year. Drawing from the experiences of others, I have compiled a list of tips for maintaining recovery during the holidays while staying focused on the things in life that are most important to you.

1) Keep doing what you’re doing: Stick to what works!

One of the most important pieces of advice we can give is to continue following your meal plan.

  • “Having a game plan of what I was going to eat ahead of time was really important,” says a member of Embody Carolina who recently recovered from an eating disorder. She went on to state, “It helped me feel less overwhelmed by all of the food because I knew exactly what I needed to eat. It also helped keep me accountable [to] make sure that I ate everything I needed.”
  • Another tip, “Holidays can be unscheduled chaos and I found it best to stick to my meal plan and its snacks as closely as possible, which in turn helped keep my hunger/fullness cues on track.” -McCall Dempsey, Founder of Southern Smash

small_304316401Maintaining a consistent eating schedule that has worked for you will help keep you on track. Make sure to eat all of your meals and snacks, without skipping any “in preparation for” a later anxiety-provoking meal or “to make up for” a previous snack or meal. Doing so may set you up for a binge, making it more challenging to stop eating the next time you’re faced with food. Switch it up by alternating between food situations that are “safe” and ones that are “challenging.” For example, if you are going to your grandma’s house for dessert, a “challenging” snack that evokes anxiety, consume a typical dinner beforehand that is within your meal plan and feels familiar and “safe.” Depending on your place in recovery, prepare in advance for how you’ll manage the incorporation of new foods or experiences into your day, such as having dinner in someone else’s home. Develop a realistic plan that has a high likelihood of working for you. And, remember, balance, structure, and flexibility are key!

For more tips on healthy eating during the holidays, read below posts by CEED dietitians, Elysse Thebner and Laurie Conteh:

2) Don’t do it on your own: Reach out for support.  

Start conversations early! Before you leave for the holidays, spend some time talking with a supportive loved one or friend about how you’re feeling. Develop a plan for how the people around you can support you when you’re struggling, and enlist their help in brainstorming strategies for managing distressing thoughts and feelings during holidays. Some of the most brilliant ideas come from our loved ones, who have a vested interest in keeping us healthy and can provide an objective view on the situation. Here are some other ways that people in recovery have relied on their support systems during the holidays:

  • “I talked through emotions and anxiety in private with my husband. This allowed him to know how to best support me when we were in the midst of family chaos. And usually that support just meant standing by my side. Sometimes just knowing someone is by your side is all the support you need.” –McCall Dempsey
  • “Reaching out to allies ahead of time was one of the best things I did for myself. I let the people closest to me know why the holiday was hard, and gave them ideas ahead of time (when I was in a good mental state) about what strategies were helpful to me. Last year, I was surprised by a text message from a friend saying simply, “I know Thanksgiving can be hard: Know that I love you.” It meant the world.”  -Colleen Daly
  • “My partner knew that I would have urges to exercise over break, so he put a post-it note on our treadmill that said, “Step away from the treadmill.” It worked.” –Anonymous male
  • “Our family has buffet-style Thanksgiving dinners, which is hard for me because I’m tempted to binge. I asked my cousin, whom I am really close with, to prepare my plate and eat with me in a room away from the food. He was happy to do so, and I was able to get through the meal okay.” –Anonymous female
  • “When I was feeling anxious, I asked my partner to go on a walk with me.” –Anonymous female
  • “I took my most body-confident, fashion-forward friend with me shopping for a new holiday outfit. I hated trying on new clothes, but her enthusiasm and love for designing outfits had been infectious in the past. We changed together and, in the dressing room, she stripped down easily and flaunted new outfits, owning her body and modeling for me a confidence that I hoped to achieve. She was also an incredible story-teller, and helped get my mind off things when needed.” –Anonymous female

One of the most powerful motivators in recovery can be your family and friends. They usually want to be there for you, but just don’t know how. Pick and choose whom you talk to and the role they play in your recovery wisely. Then, take a leap of faith and let them in. Knowing that it’s not just you fighting against the eating disorder can provide you with the strength you need to move forward when things get tough.

3) Direct the conversation! Handle unwelcomed comments.

No matter how brilliant our family and friends, we live in a weight-obsessed world, where dieting and appearance are topics that easily seep into daily conversation. Comments about appearance are usually the first we hear after reuniting with someone who we haven’t seen in awhile.  “Wow, you look great! Have you lost weight?” “Have you been working out?” “You’re looking healthier.” “What do you do to stay so skinny?” “You’ve really been eating more, huh!?” “You’re like me, when you gain weight, you can see it in your face.” Then there are the comments about food and dieting. “I’ve been eating really clean the last week so I can gorge on Thanksgiving food.” “Ugh, I shouldn’t have eaten that second slice of pumpkin pie, I’m already fat.” “After break, I’m going to eat super healthy and lean down; you should have seen my muscles before, I had a six pack.” These comments can be unsettling for many, but for those with an eating disorder, they can be especially distressing. There are three things you can do to navigate these comments: 1) prevent them, 2) divert conversation, and 3) call them out.

  • Prevent them! Talk with the people you’ll be around in advance and let them know what these types of comments are unhelpful. Ask them kindly to refrain from making triggering comments when they are around you in order to help support your recovery. Not sure what to say? Here is an example:
    • “Hey mom! I’ve been working really hard on recovery, and I’m feeling a little anxious about heading home for the holidays. To help me continue eating well, it would be really helpful for us not to talk about dieting when we’re eating. Instead, can you help me think about something else, maybe tell me about your new work project? What do you think?”
  • Divert conversation! When a comment is made, strategically change the topic of conversation. Develop a list of conversation starters beforehand so you’re prepared and not caught off guard. An example:
    • Friend says, “You’re so lucky, your legs are so thin!”
    • Your response, “Oh…I completely forgot to tell you about this TV show that I just started watching and love, and think you will too! I know you’re all about powerful, independent women so we have to watch it together. Have you seen Scandal?”
  • Call them out! If someone makes a comment that’s triggering or not in line with recovery-oriented goals, feel free to call them out on it. Comments can be made unconsciously, and bringing awareness to them may be all you need to make them stop. Here are some suggestions for what to say, which will depend on your personality and relationship with the person:
    •  “Wow, we just spent 5 minutes talking about dieting. I am feeling like that conversation is pulling me into eating disorder thoughts. We better change the topic ASAP.”
    • “It is upsetting for me to hear that you feel guilty after eating. That’s something I’m working on not feeling, especially as I’ve learned that there really are no “bad” foods. Can we help each other not say these things? ”
    • “Are you really calling yourself fat? You know I have an eating disorder – that’s really not helpful for my recovery.”
    • Or if all polite and respectful attempts fail and you’re just not getting through, “Dude, STOP! I’m not engaging in this conversation with you!” And get to higher ground with another conversation partner!

In a previous blog post, Dr. Cynthia Bulik wrote, ‘“The important thing is that you navigate the waters to have conversations with each other that are productive and enjoyable and don’t immediately catapult you back into the old roles that you had before you left home. This is not automatic. It takes practice and some trial and error to develop new and more mature communication styles.”

4)      Remember your values and live them fully

Take a few minutes to identify your personal values. Tweet them, text them, and write them down in big bold letters on a piece of paper to take with you wherever you go during the holidays. Develop a plan for living these values daily throughout the holiday break. This scheduling will provide structure to your day and make certain you take time for the good stuff. For example, if you value family, you might decide to protect an hour in your day to spend time enjoying conversation over tea with a family member. Or, if you value generosity, you may wish to spend some time each day engaging in a generous act, like driving your brother to his soccer game, buying a stranger coffee, or donating to a local charity. Filling your schedule with positive activities that warm your heart will leave less room for eating disorder thoughts and behaviors to creep in.file0001041077516

If the eating disorder presents, take some time to consider whether the eating disorder behaviors are in line with your values. Usually they are not. With this knowledge, in the moment, when an eating disorder thought pops up, you can take a moment to step back and think of a value-driven behavior. For example, if you are eating lunch with a friend who you haven’t seen in 3 years, and start having anxious thoughts about the food, remind yourself of an important value, such as attentiveness, and change your behavior to be in line with this value (e.g., listen attentively to your friend talking). By engaging in value-based behaviors, you can redirect thoughts away from the eating disorder and focus on things that are most important to you.

  • Colleen Daly, eating disorder advocate, with a personal history of an eating disorder, did just this during her recovery. She says, “Before I ate, I took a deep breath, entered a mindful state, and became thankful for the gifts I had – including a strong system of support, nourishing my mind, body and spirit, and recovery.

5) Be compassionate with yourself and others.  

Holidays can be a stressful time for everyone. Most of us are trying to do the best that we can at a time of the year that can feel chaotic. It is an important time to practice compassion for yourself and those around you. Some important recovery tips to remember:

  • Practice acceptance! McCall Dempsey says, “No matter where you are on your recovery journey, holidays can often bring up anxiety and sad memories. Accept that these feelings and thoughts [might be] there.  Do not try to shove them away because ‘you should not feel this or that’…Saying we should not feel a certain way only causes the anxiety to go up, up, up.  I find that accepting my feelings, being in the moment and being gentle with myself are a few of recovery’s greatest gifts.” Well said!
  • Expect a rocky journey, with twists and turns. No recovery is straight forward, so expect that your plan might not go perfectly. Have compassion for yourself after slips. Rather than beating yourself up over them, embrace the digressions as learning experiences and focus on helping yourself get back on track.
  • Schedule ‘me’ time. Taking time for yourself is a must. One patient states, “Setting aside some quiet time for myself throughout the day was really helpful. Making sure to take care of myself and give myself some time to recharge helps kept me from becoming overwhelmed and exhausted and let me focus more on enjoying time with my friends and family.”
  • Give others a break. If someone says or does something that’s out of line or unhelpful, consider giving them a break too.
  • Notice the good stuff! Focus on the things that have gone well, and reward yourself for the small steps forward. Make a point to acknowledge and thank your friends and family when their support is effective. Focusing on all your successes will remind you and your loved ones of what’s going well, which will increase everyone’s motivation to push forward.

Holidays are a time for honoring and spending time with the family members and friends most important to us. The eating disorder can be an unwanted guest, inserting itself into situations when you least expect. Preparing ahead of time for how you can manage the eating disorder may help keep it at bay. We encourage those of you in recovery to take some time before the holidays to reflect on your recovery goals, the important things in your life, and a to develop a realistic plan to stay healthy and happy. We at CEED wish you all safe travels and a lovely holiday break.

Below are related blog posts that you may find helpful as well:

 photo credit:  Jennifer13 via Creative Commons

 photo credit:  jDevaun via Creative Commons