Holiday gatherings and celebratory feasts can pose some significant challenges, regardless of where you’re at in treatment or recovery. Being aware of them, planning for them and setting yourself up for an enjoyable holiday is important. That’s why we asked all of our clinical staff at CED to share their best advice for having a safe and successful holiday while maintaining or working towards recovery from an eating disorder. They had so much to share that we couldn’t fit it all in just one post so this is just the first of a 3-part series to help you through the before, during and after of the holidays.
Through the years, these are some of the strategies and suggestions that our therapists have seen the most success with and we hope you will too. Happy Thanksgiving from all of us here at the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt.
Part I: BEFORE the Holiday…
- Plan, Plan, Plan…..with your treatment team and with your primary supports. Develop a very specific, detailed plan for managing all the stressors that come along with the holidays.
- Challenge predictable thoughts before the holiday. If you notice you have predictable patterns of negative thinking pop up at family gatherings or the same triggering thoughts sneak up on you every Thanksgiving day, take time to identify them in advance. Write them down and work on challenging the thoughts ahead of time (on your own or with a therapist) so you’re better prepared to defend against these specific negative/irrational thoughts on the actual day. You might even consider keeping a list of your positive affirmations or challenge statements with you on Thanksgiving for easy access. (If you know you’ll have your phone handy, you could even send a text to yourself the day before).
- Identify one or two major positives about the holiday. No matter how anxious or depressed you may feel about an approaching holiday, there IS a positive hidden somewhere, even if it’s as simple as getting time off from school or work.
- Make a list of your top 3 most reliable coping strategies and keep it handy in a notebook or on your phone.
Decrease stress and increase relaxation. Only say “yes” to events that you would like to attend and believe you can attend with success. Keep your daily schedule of activities and gatherings manageable.
~ Kim Anderson, Ph.D., Therapist and CED Psychology Coordinator
- RSVP with a time limit. For example, “Thanks so much for inviting me. I’ll be able to be there from 3:00 to 5:00.” This provides you with some boundaries and an opportunity to leave the situation if it’s becoming detrimental to your recovery. However, if things are going better than expected (which often happens) and you want to stay longer, then you can.
- Choose a worry chair. If the anxiety is overwhelming or interfering with life, set up an appointment for yourself to “worry” about your concern at a specified time, date and place- this allows you to “delay” the worry and frees you up to take care of business at hand until then.
I really try to highlight for my patients that they are not alone in experiencing high stress around the holidays and that other members of their family are likely struggling with similar anxieties and negative thoughts. Some are able to manage extra stressors in healthy ways like talking about how they’re feeling, getting enough sleep, setting limits, or adding in extra self-care. Other family members may turn to unhealthy management strategies like drinking too much, getting into arguments, withdrawing, avoiding, hiding their feelings, or eating too much/too little. I try to use this to help my patients see that the problem isn’t the food itself, it is ultimately the thoughts and feelings, that can lead to intensified eating disorder urges. Being aware of this can free you up to move forward and choose more constructive and beneficial ways to cope.
~Laura Sproch, Ph.D., Individual and Family Therapist and CED Research Coordinator
- Identify a “safe person” you can go to that is aware of your struggle and will support, distract, and protect you on the day of the holiday gathering. Talk with that person ahead of time so they know exactly how to support you during the meal and in specific situations. These things are not always obvious and support people may need a little “coaching” in advance. Some people even like to arrange a “code word” with their support person that they can say when they’re feeling really triggered and need an opportunity to remove him or herself from the situation.
- A day ahead, you may want to plan out the timing for your meals, especially if Thanksgiving meal is falling at an atypical meal time. Refuse to use that timing issue as an excuse to skip meals or go off your meal plan. Simply juggle around your mealtimes a bit so that you can still fit in breakfast, lunch, dinner and one or two snacks. If you don’t do this in advance, it probably won’t happen.
- Create a holiday project that will provide you with some distraction and also give you something positive to look forward to on the day of the holiday. Consider creating a scrapbook of past family holidays or a hand-made gift for your host/hostess.
- Set realistic expectations. Work on decreasing expectations about decorations, food, family time, and any other areas in which you’re feeling pressure to be perfect.
Real-life holidays, like many things, will not resemble the advertisements and commercials that portray them. Holiday gatherings will not be perfect…someone will spill their drink all over the carpet, your relatives will arrive late (or unexpectedly early!), kids will have tantrums, arguments may occur, and at least some of the food will get overcooked. The great thing is, that’s all okay and normal. If you find yourself expecting a picture perfect Thanksgiving, take time to adjust your vision and agree to embrace the day in all its imperfection. Ultimately, that is exactly what will make it memorable.
~ Kate Clemmer, LCSW-C, CED Community Outreach Coordinator
- Focus on the bigger picture. Research causes or charities that interest you where you might be able to volunteer during the holiday season; focus on the meaning of the holiday rather than the food specifically.
- Don’t skip therapy appointments. With all of the preparations and traveling and extra time committments, many people find themselves tempted to cancel pre-holiday meetings with therapists and dietitians or skip regular support groups. We’ve encountered this many times before and unfortunately, it rarely results in positive outcomes. This is exactly the time when extra support is crucial. Instead of cancelling, consider other options like adjusting your appointment time to an earlier slot before you leave town.
- Begin a daily practice of gratitude. Start each day by reflecting on something you are grateful for. You could write them each down in a journal or even post them on Facebook. This is a great way to head into the holiday with a fresh and positive outlook.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post with more insight and suggestions from our therapists and dietitians in Tried and True Strategies for a Recovery-Focused Holiday, Part 2: The Day Of Thanksgiving.
[UPDATE]: Part II is now live here.
[UPDATE]: Part III is available here: Tried & True Strategies for a Recovery-Focused Holiday, Part III: AFTER Thanksgiving has Come and Gone
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You might also be interested in these posts from past holidays…
Photo courtesy of examiner.com