Each year we see many individuals with eating disorders, and even those in strong recovery, become increasingly anxious as the holidays approach. Being on high alert for triggers or signs of relapse can be an effective way of staying recovery-focused and keeping yourself well. However, it’s also important to relax into the holiday and not allow the anxiety to overshadow what could be a very positive experience.
Yesterday in Part I, we shared strategies to help you plan ahead for a recovery-focused holiday. Today in Part II, our staff share their top tips for making it through the actual day of a holiday with health and recovery intact.
Part II: The Day OF Thanksgiving…
- RELAX – Focus on your breath, meditate, or listen to soothing music on your way to he festivities so you start off the celebration in a positive place. If you show up in an anxious or negative mood right off the bat, it’s likely to affect those around you and be intensified.
Try to enjoy the holiday, not just survive it! Focus on what you would like to do and who you would like to do it with. Shift your attention from body image, food, and self-criticism and focus on what you want the meaning of the holiday to be for you.
~Kim Anderson, Ph.D., Therapist and Director of Psychology
- Check in with yourself about body comparisons. Believe it or not, we hear a lot about patients not liking family gatherings because they are comparing their bodies to other family members. For many people, these inter-family comparisons can be the most triggering or most intense body comparisons they face. If you find yourself going down that road, hit the pause button. Rewind, reconnect and consider engaging the person in conversation instead. See if you can find out something positive about them you never knew before. Remember that they are more than just their body and you are more than just yours.
- Get grounded. If you feel your thoughts drifting to food, body or weight, re-connect to something positive in the moment. Sometimes wearing a special bracelet or keeping a special item in your pocket that you can reach for and touch/hold can help to ground you. Connecting physically to an item can help you stay in the moment and tune out the eating disorder voice.
- Cross generational boundaries. Be mindful of the different support each generation of your family can offer. Hanging out with siblings, cousins and others of a similar age to you can be a nice way to connect around common developments and gives you a chance to get support/empathy on specific life stage issues like being away at college, parenting stress, job hunting, retirement, etc. On the other hand, reaching out to older generations, like grandparents, is an opportunity to get outside of your own concerns, to see how priorities can shift throughout life and also to collect some family history. Consider sitting down with an older relative and asking them an open-ended question about their most memorable Thanksgiving. Even the youngest generations have something to offer you in your recovery-focused holiday…
Spending time with the young children in your family during large family gatherings could be a good distraction from “grownup conversation”. Hang out with the kids, play games with them and ask them about themselves. You might even consider eating with the children and think about being a good role model for them.
~Lisa McCathran, LCPC, CED Outpatient Therapist
- Be the family photographer. Grab your camera and put yourself in charge of documenting the day. Many extended families only have rare opportunities to spend time together. Catching family memories on film will not only keep you focused on something other than the ED, it will give people around you a reason to smile and be mindful of the special moments throughout the day.
- Hors d’oeuvres. Food is often present at holiday gatherings long before the actual holiday meal is set on the table. Be prepared. When eating appetizers/munchies, instead of continually grazing and walking around with food, you may want to put all of your choices on a plate together at once so that you can see a total of what you are eating. Then allow yourself to sit down and mindfully enjoy eating it.
- Structure your time before and after the meal by preemptively volunteering to help out in ways you are most comfortable with. For example, ask if you could set the table instead of helping around the food in the kitchen. Instead of packing up the leftovers, consider offering to load the dishwasher or get the kids in their pajamas.
- Be assertive in making sure you get seated next to your most supportive family member at the dinner table.
- Use your support. If you took the effort to connect with a “safe person” in advance of the holiday, now you have to be sure to utilize them. It can be hard to ask for help in the moment but it will be worth it.
[Editors note: When we asked our dietitians to chime in on the “eating part” of the holiday and their best piece of advice, they all said the same thing…which means it’s probably pretty important. That’s why we’ve included all of their input below without consolidating. Even though it’s repetitive, it’s one of the most important things you can do to have a happy, safe and recovery-focused holiday while recovering from an eating disorder.]
- Take the time to eat your three meals during the holiday. Breakfast will be particularly important as it sets the stage for your hunger and fullness cues over the rest of the day.
- Eat regularly!!! It’s the most important thing to do. This is not the best time to try a new eating schedule.
- Do not skip meals! Do not plan to compensate for overeating later by skipping meals in advance.
- Stick to the meal plan especially the day before the holiday and on Thanksgiving Day.
Have an adequate meal at each meal time prior to the Thanksgiving meal so that you’re able to enter the holiday meal hungry, but not ravenous. When you skip meals or restrict during the day and then enter a meal ravenous, you’re much more likely to eat past fullness. On the other hand, entering a meal with a natural level of hunger means you will be more likely to stop when you’re properly nourished and comfortably full.
~ Hannah Huguenin, MS, RD, LDN, CED Dietitian
- Everyone needs a little alone time. Remember to take time by yourself to journal or relax during the day. If you’re staying with relatives and can’t find space inside the house to be alone, grab your coat, a cup of hot tea and step outside for fresh air, or consider volunteering to run an errand for your host
- Play games. Don’t assume that your host will be prepared with distraction techniques for you – he or she will probably be pretty busy with holiday hosting tasks – so bring your own games to the party. Grab a holiday-themed puzzle or some of your favorite board games that will encourage interaction. Need something quicker and easier? Simply bring a deck of cards that you can use to play all sorts of different games with others or even by yourself.
Many people with eating disorders, especially those who’ve experienced trauma, may experience very intense emotions around the holidays. These strong feelings and stressors can be overwhelming but they don’t need to ruin or disrupt your holiday. Consider using a “containment strategy”. Write down the unpleasant thought or feeling on paper and put it “away” inside a designated containment box to be opened later when feeling safer such as in a therapist’s office or when the feeling has decreased in intensity.
~ Irene Rovira, Ph.D., Therapist & CED Psychology Coordinator
- If you are not attending a family gathering it’s still important to plan a recovery-focused holiday. In fact, it may be even more important to create structure and social opportunities that will keep you focused on the bigger picture and engaged in positive activities. This could include volunteering your time to other causes like a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter or it might mean finding another friend without plans and going out to a movie together.
- You made a list, now check it twice. If you took the advice in Part I of this holiday blog series, then you should have a list of the top 3 most useful coping skills for you (this will be different for everyone). If you’re going through the day and you’re struggling with eating disorder thoughts or urges to act on symptoms, refer back to your list and work through them again, making tweaks if necessary. For example, if you called or texted a friend who never replied, do it again but try someone else this time. Just because the first person didn’t get back to you, doesn’t mean you have to give up.
- RELAX and end your day with SELF-CARE. Just as we suggest starting off the day with relaxation techniques, allow more time for yourself to decompress from the holiday as it comes to a close. Breathe deeply, put on your favorite music playlist for the ride home, or take a few minutes to journal when you arrive home. Regardless of how the day went, do something nice for yourself before you go to bed on Thanksgiving night. For some people, that might be taking a nice hot bath, reading a book, writing a supportive email to yourself, watching a favorite movie with your spouse or a best friend, or cuddling with your pet. Whatever it is, allow yourself to enjoy it. Accept that you are deserving of self-care and able to bring your day to a close in a positive way.
We know this is a long list, and you can’t do every single thing on here ( and we don’t want you to overwhelm yourself by trying). Just choose the ones that speak to you and that you think will be most helpful on your holiday. Chat with support people and get their feedback regarding how these tips can fit into your specific family’s traditions and holiday schedules.
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Did you miss Part 1? You can still go back and read the holiday planning and preparation tips here: Tried and True Strategies for a Recovery-Focused Holiday, Part I: BEFORE the Holiday…
Have a good tip that we missed? Share your support and feedback on our Facebook page.
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Many thanks to the following CED providers who’ve contributed to this blog series:
- Samantha Lewandowski, MS, RD, LDN
- Hannah Huguenin, MS, RD, LDN
- Jennifer Moran, Psy.D.
- Kim Anderson, Ph.D.
- Laura Sproch, Ph.D.
- Irene Rovira, Ph.D.
- Amy Scott, LCPC
- Lisa McCathran, LCPC
- Anne Holman, LCSW-C
- Kate Clemmer, LCSW-C
- Jennifer Lane, MS, OTR/L