Eating Disorders and Holiday Cheer

Written By: Judy Lemke, LPC

Once again, I am in awe of how quickly time passes.   Not only has fall arrived in all its blaze of color and blustery winds, but there is also evidence of the season in outdoor decorations and store displays.  Store displays which seemingly combined Halloween with the start of school and are now reminding us the Christmas is coming.  REALLY?    It’s still October!  

The Christmas holidays are supposed to be a magical time, filled with friends and family, love, laughter and sharing beautiful meals together…except that for someone suffering or recovering from an eating disorder, Christmas can mean panic, fear and feeling overwhelmed.  For those who’ve never experienced an eating disorder, it can be difficult to comprehend how turkey and stuffing, pecan pie, peppermint hot chocolate  and holiday cookies could bring about such anxiety – and this lack of understanding can often make an ED ( eating disorder)  sufferer or someone in recovery feel worse. 

If difficult memories and plenty of triggers are present, the holidays can be a painful time. But they don’t have to be. With a little planning and preparation, you can help the holidays go smoothly and keep negative feelings, fears and disordered thoughts at bay. Here are few suggestions   to help you survive the holidays. 

Plan to stick to a normal eating routine. 

Christmas is a time when many people eat much larger meals or snack consistently throughout the day – however, there is no reason why you can’t stick to your regular eating schedule. If you’ve been given an eating plan from a therapist or treatment team, make sure to discuss with them how best to stick to this. 

Plan ahead if you can to help yourself avoid any out of the blue panic moments.  

If it’s possible, try to find out ahead of time what will be on the holiday menu and when it will be served. If you find anything about the menu overwhelming and sense that it might cause a conflict for you on the day, have a quiet word with the host of holiday lunch/dinner about your struggles, and let them know how you’d like to get around them.  Don’t be shy about asking if you can bring a dish to pass that fits with your eating plan. 

 Be realistic about where you are in your recovery journey. 

Many people expect their ED to disappear over the holidays, especially Christmas, and allow them to enjoy food free of guilt and stress, and then feel immensely disappointed when this doesn’t happen. Remember, you can’t magically speed up your journey and if you’re not yet at the tail end of recovery, that’s okay! It’s important not to apply any additional guilt to yourself at this time of year. Remind yourself that Christmas, although it is a special time, is also just one day and it doesn’t make or break your recovery success. 

Have a support plan in place.  

If you feel like you might struggle at any point during the day, establish a support person(s) ahead of time to help put you at ease – this could be a friend or family member that you can privately whisk away for a chat, or even calling a friend for a short supportive conversation.   If the above aren’t options for you, remember that there are support helplines open 24/7, even over Christmas, that you can contact anonymously.  If you feel like you might need to chat to one of them, I recommend saving the number in your phone before the holiday season is in full swing.  One example is the Crisis Textline:  Text CONNECT to 741741.  It is available 24/7, 365 days a year and helps with eating disorders and other mental health issues by connecting callers with trained crisis volunteers who will provide confidential advice, support and referrals if needed.  (National Eating Disorders Association) 

Allow yourself to say “no” if you feel it necessary.  

Many of us have some abrasive, harsh relatives that we might not honestly enjoy.   And sometimes, if we know that a certain relative will make abusive or triggering comments/questions about our struggles, this can make us feel even worse at an already stressful time. If this is the case and you just know that you’re not going to cope well with seeing a certain relative, remember that you have the right to back out of a social obligation. It’s important to preserve your mental health and although it may not be healthy (or possible) to avoid a certain family member forever, you have every right to choose to take care of your needs as a priority at this point in time.  

Allow yourself to say “yes” to new experiences.  

There’s a fine line between being mindful of your limitations and letting yourself be ruled by your limitations. And although you may feel like some family members or friends could negatively judge you, it’s important not to isolate yourself from everyone based on fear. Research suggests that social withdrawal and anxiety related to social situations in ED sufferers often occurs from a deeply rooted fear of being negatively evaluated by peers (Mayo Clinic.  2016 Eating Disorders:  Symptoms and Causes).  This is a common defense mechanism during the holidays. However, extensive isolation also brings a breeding ground for negative behavioral patterns so it’s important to carefully consider whether you choose to avoid certain people or gatherings.  Don’t let your ED stop you from enjoying the day or involving yourself in activities that you want to. There may be some scary experiences at Christmas parties, but they’re also filled with people who love and support you and want to spend time with you, regardless of what you eat. You are loved.  

And above all, try to remember that: 

  • Your choices can be your own. Regardless of how much your cousin engages in diet-talk at the table, regardless of how much that nosy long-lost grandmother questions your meal plan… you don’t owe them a justification for honoring your mental and physical health. 
  • You’re allowed to change the subject. If you find that someone at your Christmas gathering is discussing something that makes you uncomfortable or questioning you in a way that you find threatening, you have every right to change the subject. Try to change the subject to something other than food and bodies – take this as an opportunity to spread some positivity to those around you! Ask the person about their recent holiday, compliment them on something or remind them of a funny story from a Christmas gathering in years past.  
  • Food is not the enemy. Food is fuel, and it is also something that is able to be enjoyed and celebrated for pleasure. There is no moral value to food, and whatever you choose to eat does not define you as a person. You do not need to “make up for” your food intake tomorrow. 
  • Focusing on the positive memories will help you. Is it wonderful catching up with old friends? Do you love the seasonal music? Do you help your family put up the Christmas tree? Keep those positive, happy traditions at the front of your mind.  
  • Although it’s tempting to stay silent about whatever fears, worries and anxieties you may be facing, staying quiet always makes it so much harder.  YOU are not a burden.  Choosing to reach out for help and support from those around you will make your life so much easier and will help your loved ones better understand how they can help make the holidays an awesome and enjoyable time for you. Everyone benefits from supporting each other! 

Facing the holidays with an eating disorder is rarely easy but making a conscious effort to be mindful to continuing your recovery path is always worth it. 

Wishing you all a safe, happy and guilt-free festive season!