When you are coping with, or in recovery from an eating disorder, the holidays can be a scary time full of obstacles and challenges. Every gathering and celebration is potentially triggering, whether it’s the emphasis on food and large meals, disruption to normal routines, heightened stress, family pressures and conflicts, awkward social situations or seasonal feelings of sadness and loneliness, even when surrounded by loved ones.   

Keep in mind, you are not alone in your feelings. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), nearly 30 million Americans struggle with disordered eating. Moreover, 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting or using diet pills or laxatives to control their weight.

So, while the thought of the weeks ahead may feel overwhelming, if you have started on the path of recovery, you’ve already learned some powerful coping strategies for tough times. Remember to stick to what works for you. Don’t let your fears cause you to miss out on the moments of joy and allow your family and trusted loved ones to help you when you are struggling.

Coping Strategies

Instead of spending time focusing on the potential problems and letting your dread build, think about what you can do in advance to approach the festivities with strength. Here are some recommendations that can help:

  1. Build your support system. Put together a list of people you can reach out to, at any time, if you are considering using eating disordered behaviors. This could include family members, friends, professionals who are part of your recovery team, or a helpline. (You can call or text the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) helpline at (800) 931-2237.)

  2. Communicate with the people you trust. The people in your support system can be most effective in helping you if they are aware of your concerns. Be open with them about how certain events and people increase your anxiety level. Then, talk to them about how they can help you cope. For example, you and your parents may want to come up with a mutually-agreed-upon signal that lets them know you want a break or need help navigating a difficult situation.

  3. Have a plan. Write down all the potentially triggering situations you might face and note strategies for dealing with them. You may want to designate a quiet place where you can go when you feel anxious, map out activities you want to participate in and think about some topics of conversation, if you feel nervous about social situations. It’s helpful to be aware of where your sources of tension lie. But then remember to mindfully shift your focus and energy back to what you actually care about and want to participate in, like soaking in your favorite part of the holidays whether that is quality time with your friend or family members, enjoying and really letting yourself experience pleasant thoughts, emotions sensations as you feel them.

  4. Ease your holiday meal anxiety. Be aware of the “all or nothing” thought patterns that can create unrealistic and rigid expectations. It is not about eating everything or eating nothing. It is about listening to yourself, knowing that it is okay to have what you want, remembering that it is only one day and nothing awful will happen if you change the rules and remembering that the holidays are not all about food.

    If you have one, work with your dietician to decide which foods you will eat and which “fear foods” – or foods you may feel anxious or uncomfortable eating – you will try. Give yourself permission to eat your favorite foods. Do not start down the path of starving yourself in advance of the holiday so you can indulge. Instead, try to approach holiday meals the same way you would a normal meal. Try to stick to your eating schedule and routines as much as possible, but don’t berate yourself if that doesn’t happen.

    If you can, suggest a buffet meal rather than a sit-down meal. And, remember, you don’t have to participate in meal preparation, there are many other ways to be helpful and involved.

  5. Set boundaries and don’t be afraid to say “no.” Much of the stress of the holidays comes from overextending ourselves. Manage your expectations and those of others. It is perfectly reasonable to turn down some invitations. It is also reasonable to not engage in certain conversations, especially if they are diet or body-image focused. Change the subject, have your parents change the subject or walk away if you have to.

  6. Use distraction. Think about what you like about the holidays and focus on those moments. Plan ahead for activities that don’t involve food but are festive. Decorate the house, sing carols or play board games with family. Stay busy doing what you love so you don’t have to focus on your struggles the entire time.

  7. Be kind to yourself. If you are feeling overwhelmed, don’t be hard on yourself. If you find yourself making unhealthy choices, know that stumbles are part of every ongoing recovery process. Don’t let the negative self-talk take over. Practice compassion with yourself. This is a difficult time and you are dealing with it the best you can.

As always, when I share tips for good mental health: I urge you to make time for self-care during the holidays. Being well-rested, spending time outdoors, doing mindfulness exercises or meditating, are instrumental to building your resilience and giving you the strength to cope.

If you are in a crisis and need help immediately, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line. Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7 support via text message to individuals who are struggling with mental health, including eating disorders, and are experiencing crisis situations.

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