By Kim R. DiRé, LPC, MEd, SEP
Holidays can be the most triggering times for those with eating disorders. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, New Year, and other holidays often are filled with anxiety and family obligations mostly centered around food. How can the eating disordered person deal with the stress during the holiday season? How can the family of the eating disordered person support their loved one in a positive manner?
Food, people and emotions can activate or “trigger” those suffering from an eating disorder during the holiday season. The eating disordered individual has so many fears about all three of their activating triggers showing up with intensity during family gatherings. They will feel overwhelmed and unsafe in family gatherings. The increased focus on food and socialization makes it difficult for the eating disordered person to make wise-minded decisions.
Some helpful tips for the Eating Disordered Person to get through the Holiday Season:
Plan ahead – Let family know what words to say and what behavior will be supportive before the event. Plan out your situation ahead of time. If you are unsure if the food will trigger you, offer to bring something that you know you will be able to eat. You may even want to write down some comeback remarks if there are awkward comments about your eating habits or weight. Plan ahead of time the skills you can use for emotions or when anxiety arises. One of the skills can be the three slow cycles of breathing deeply.
Eat regularly and healthy – Stick to your normal routine and meal plan. Pick a balance of foods for your meal. Include all the food groups in appropriate portions. During holidays, many people eat a large amount of food in one sitting and often off of a three-meal, two-snack pattern. Don’t let others change your normal routine. You may have to be extra persistent with family members to keep your healthy pattern.
Make a list – Write down each thing you have to do for the holidays. Get things done ahead of time to save yourself from unneeded stress.
Get extra support – Consider making an extra trip to your therapist to help you address and cope with specific worries, fears and anxieties. Find a supportive family partner to talk with and enter family gatherings with, so you don’t have to go it alone. Confide in someone who will be with you during meal times. This person can help guide you and listen to your specific concerns. They can help you relieve tension and give helpful advice. A sibling, parent or cousin familiar with the family’s personalities and understands your eating disorder without judgment, makes the best supporter. You may want to find and attend an eating disorder support group during this time as well.
Take one day at a time – Looking at the total of the holidays can be overwhelming. Take one day at a time. You may even want to break the day down into parts. Just work on the morning goals, then the afternoon to bedtime goals.
Set goals and intentions for the day – Instead of focusing on food, you may want to set some other goals for your visits. You may have social goals or investigating your family history and roots during the gatherings.
Do some fun activities – Take time to create some fun. Games, walks and movies can help distract you from food worries. A good game of family Scrabble or Monopoly can bring a positive family experience to your visit.
If you make a mistake … let it go and move on – If you slip up, get up and start from the moment you become aware of the slip to get back on the meal plan. Use your skills to distract, improve the moment or soothe yourself with self-care activities.
Try to be flexible – Do the best you can to flow with the plans while sticking to your meal plan.
Only attend what you can handle – You don’t have to attend all the events. You may want to attend as many of the non-food events as possible and politely decline situations that would make you uncomfortable and overwhelmed.
Some helpful tips for the Eating Disordered Person’s Family to get through the Holiday Season:
Focus on the holiday, not the food – It makes it easier if the emphasis is on time together, activities and traditions. If your family is estranged, start to develop new traditions. Planned activities such as games or decorating can take the focus off forced conversation.
Get support for yourself – Outside help from a therapist and nutritionist schooled in eating disorder recovery can be helpful for family members of an eating disordered person.
Remove expectations – Allow the eating disordered person to stay out of the kitchen. Make sure the seating arrangement for the eating disordered person is not facing the buffet, feast table or kitchen. The person suffering from the eating disorder is ultimately responsible for her recovery. Family members can show care and concern, forgive, encourage and love. Take the pressure off them and yourself to interact without driving their goal of recovery at each family gathering. Allow the eating disordered person not have to attend every gathering. The freedom to say ‘no’ when the eating disordered family member is overwhelmed is a relief for them.
Watch comments and policing behaviors – Try not to comment about what and how much the eating disordered person is eating. Try not to comment about and changes in body weight or shape. Try to pay less attention to appearances. Try not to watch when the person leaves to use the restroom.
Be helpful – Set up a structure and negotiation ahead of time or before the holiday. Find something that is agreeable to the eating disordered person and the family. Have an open and honest discussion about what would be helpful for the eating disordered family member while continuing with the family traditions. Find out what the triggers are of the eating disordered person and how you can de-escalate if the person gets activated without having the eating disordered person dominate and dictate the event. The open conversation is a negotiation of what will work for everyone in the family for the holiday.