Getting Through the Holidays in Eating Disorder Recovery

The festive season is a time of celebration and seeing family and friends. But for many people, it ends up being the most stressful time of the year. There’s the pressure to throw the perfect party, it’s expensive, and you’re often invited to events that you don’t really want to attend, with family members you don’t really want to see.

Really, this is enough to make anyone’s nerves frazzled. Add an eating disorder (ED) of any kind – bulimia, anorexia, binge eating or anything else – and the situation is even worse. We’re talking about people who use food and control to manage their emotions and stressful environments so that behaviour’s going to be more pronounced.

On top of that, so many holiday gatherings are centred on food making them even scarier. But ED sufferers are not powerless in almost any circumstances, up to and including end-of-year festivities. If you’re in eating disorder recovery and you want to stay that way through the season, or if you’re giving support to someone who is trying to do that, there are a lot of practical steps that you can take.

Seasonal Tips to Maintain ED Recovery

  • Stick to Your Usual Meal Plan or Routine as Far as Possible: This should help you feel grounded but remember that meals might be late or unexpected foods might be served. Keep your schedule as much as possible, while expecting a few hiccups.
  • Reach Out to Your Support Team: If you think you might need to check in around mealtimes or after certain occasions, chat to someone you trust and set that up.
  • Have an Exit Plan: You can go to events and leave early or have a plan for leaving if you think you might need to. Explain as little or as much to your hosts as you want to; you could even just say that you have to make another engagement. This goes for seeing family members too; if someone causes you a lot of stress, have a way to remove yourself from their company or set a time limit on how long you’ll see them.
  • Develop Strategies for “Diet Talks”: Often people will discuss food and diets around the table, says Eating Disorder therapist Jennifer Rollin. Decide on a few phrases that you’ll use to change the subject, such as asking someone how their job is going. You can preface these by saying you’d rather not talk about weight management if you feel it would be helpful.
  • Be Realistic But Take a Moment to be Proud Too: As Rollins says, if you are working to be in ED recovery, especially over the holidays, you are very courageous. Don’t forget to affirm that within yourself.

Supporting a Survivor This Season

  • Focus on Other Aspects of a Celebration, rather than Food: In a post for centreforchange.com, Drs Randy Hardman and Michael Berrett say how important it is to emphasise the real meaning of the season. Share appreciation for spending time together, sing carols, make cards or even do some volunteer work together.
  • If You Agree to Support Someone, Make Sure You’re Available: If an ED survivor asks you to stay close to them at a gathering or be available for a phone call afterwards make sure that you do, and you are.
  • Discuss Situations with Sufferers: Listen to what they have to say and let them take charge of their own recovery. That doesn’t mean you need to agree to unreasonable requests; don’t stop serving specific foods, for example, but place them away from where the individual is seated. In the words of Harman and Berrett, you’re a caregiver, not a caretaker. Do your best not to take someone else’s power as you try to give support.

Be Aware That You’ll Make Mistakes

This is important for everyone. If there’s one thing ED sufferers and survivors learn as they go along, it’s that recovery is about progress and not perfection. Nobody is ever going to do everything right – the very act of trying or expecting that is wrong.

Someone in recovery could panic and lash out at the person who is trying to support them. A well-meaning family member might slip up and reference a survivor’s weight. People make mistakes, and a certain amount of flexibility should be applied. Decide on your boundaries, make your plans, and remember that everyone is human. In the true spirit of the season, try to practice compassion and forgiveness – with yourself and others.