Reducing stress by preparing for the holidays

Preparing for a less stressful Festive season is possible

Many people look forward to the holidays as a break from the stress and time pressure of daily work and family stress but that does not mean we don’t have to plan for it. You do not need to go overboard and try to control every day, every activity, every interaction – and importantly for us who struggle with eating disorders – every mealtime. We need to take a holistic approach to our plans.

Even good stress is still stressful

The holidays hold a lot of emotion. Some people look forward to it, conjuring up happy memories of years past. Some hate it with a passion. Others find it scary. You may feel ambivalent about this time of year. The fact remains, ALL of us, no matter where we are on our recovery journeys, know that there will be some unexpected events and tricky situations to deal with.

Identify your old coping mechanisms

When you entered the clinic or therapy, one of the first and most important skills you learnt was to connect your emotional responses to your eating disorder and other coping behaviours. Hard as it may be, now is the time to look at these afresh.

How have you dealt with stress in the past? Many people (even those without Eating Disorders) ‘eat’ their feelings; some ‘purge’ them. Others vacillate uncomfortably between both. For those who have the additional challenge of an Eating Disorder diagnosis, this can be very distressing.

It is sad that the media, society and even our nearest and dearest use the holidays as an excuse to tempt us into binge-eating or to put us under pressure to abstain in the name of warding off putting on ‘holiday weight’. We may feel under pressure to ‘conform’ and ‘not to hurt anyone’s feelings’. It is a normal desire to want to keep the peace, no matter what.

You are responsible only for yourself

Eating Disorders are not only about our relationship with food. We also need to work on the underlying issues that has affected our relationships with others and, by extension, with food. We cannot separate the one from the other.

Do not be too hard on yourself!

To keep the peace and enjoy the time spent together with family and friends, ALL of us, whether we have an Eating Disorder or not, will be required to do some accommodating and keeping the peace takes a group effort. You should not be the only one making allowances for others.

Remember: you are not responsible for others and their responses – you can only take responsibility for yourself. And this is why you need to do some planning beforehand.

Feeling lonely in a crowd

This time of year we can feel very lonely, even as we are surrounded by people who love us. It can make us feel like there is a dividing line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. We may not have access to our mental health support networks in quite the same way as we would during the rest of the year. Maybe you need to travel to your family. There may not be a 12-step ED programme to attend. Even if there is one, you may not know anyone there.

When you are developing your plan ask yourself these questions:

1) How can you stay in contact with key support persons in your life?

2) Are they going away for the holidays?

3) Can your recovery therapist or any of the members in your community suggest alternative meetings?

4) Is there an online support group that you can tap into before the holidays, so that you will know what it will be like?

You need to look for support outside of the above as well. Who will be present at family gatherings or festivities that can be a potential ally in a sticky situation? Identify a friend or family member that can step in when you struggle to say no or explain yourself to others who may not know about your eating disorder, who minimise it or say mean things about it. Practice these conversations with your therapist or support network.

Planning your emotional support is not selfish

When we are faced with stress, our self-confidence often takes a knock. The critic in our head that may tell us that we are not good enough, that we are selfish for trying to meet our own needs.

Maybe you think that you have nothing to contribute. We are all at different points in our journeys! Maybe you can validate someone else’s struggles. Maybe you could brainstorm strategies with someone in your support community. Most importantly – you can be there to listen.

List possible holiday triggers

Make a list of the things that you worry about, without judgement or minimising it. Do some deep breathing and mindfulness exercises. Apply some of the skills you learnt in the clinic from your counsellors, and in support groups. What is the likelihood of these things happening during the holidays? You may want to rate them from 1 (least likely to happen) to 5 (most likely to happen).

Now you can work out a strategies to cope with these situations, should they arise. Try to come up with at least three different things you can do before, during or afterwards. Use your mental health and recovery team and support network as a sounding board for these.

Goalsetting is important

Instead of planning each day down to the last minute, set a few SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timebound) goals. There are no rules here! You can set goals for the whole holiday, which you can then break down into a daily or weekly plan. Do not be too ambitious! It is important to work rest and recreation into your plan. A holiday, after all, should be a holiday!

It is useful to do your planning before the festive season starts. However, plans may change! Now is the time to practice flexibility and letting go. Make sure that your goals include all the different elements of good health – body, mind, spirit, social interactions and emotional well-being.

Set a day aside once a week to monitor your progress. Let go of judgement and reach inside for inner compassion! You can change the goals as you go along. Some situations may turn out to be easier or harder to manage than you thought. Brainstorm adjustments to your initial plans.

Establish a flexible but varied routine

Routine is our friend. It helps us to keep track of things. Think about the things that are non-negotiable to you. Include daily physical self-care routines, but also mental health routines! Incorporate regular yoga session, meditation, or praying to your Higher Power. Go for walks. Spend time on your own. Phone a friend.

Sleep enough, but not too much – a regular bedtime regime may help you manage night-time binge-eating. Getting up at the same time may help you not to skip breakfast. Set mealtimes make taking medication easier.

Meal planning and preparation ahead of time

You may not be able to control what other people prepare and eat. You can prepare alternatives that you feel comfortable with, even if you take the ingredients along and prepare it on the day. Remember to plan for both the ingredients you will need, as well what you will put these in. Do not forget to include sufficient liquids to drink.

Take away message

You may feel alone and unsure of what to do, even if you have lived with managing an eating disorder for decades. It is normal. Your feelings and fears are valid. Know that you have a community to draw on the moment you join an ED support group, the moment you open up to your rehabilitation counsellor. You cannot control others but you can take proactive steps to plan ahead and be prepared.