People with eating disorders often find surviving the holiday season particularly challenging due to psychological, emotional, and social factors. The cumulative impact of these factors can contribute to a sense of overwhelm, making it uniquely tricky for individuals with eating disorders to survive the holiday season while maintaining their well-being and recovery. It’s important to acknowledge that each person’s experience is unique, and the impact of the holidays on individuals with eating disorders can vary. For those in recovery, seeking support from mental health professionals, engaging in self-care strategies, and communicating their needs with loved ones can be essential in managing the challenges of the holiday season and surviving the holidays.

Psychological Factors Related to Eating Disorders and The Holidays:

Many individuals with eating disorders strive for perfection in all aspects of their lives, including their eating habits and body image. The holiday season’s focus on indulgence and enjoyment of food can clash with this perfectionist mindset, leading to anxiety and distress. People with eating disorders often think in extremes, viewing foods as either “good” or “bad.” Holiday meals, which often feature a wide variety of foods, can trigger feelings of guilt and the fear of “losing control” around “forbidden” foods. Individuals with eating disorders may have rigid rules and rituals around eating. The disruption of routines and unfamiliar foods during the holidays can be overwhelming and anxiety-provoking. Furthermore, the holiday season’s emphasis on gatherings and photos can intensify body image concerns. Individuals with eating disorders may struggle with feelings of shame and self-consciousness about their appearance.

Emotional Factors Related to Holidays With An Eating Disorder:

The anticipation of holiday events, social interactions, and food-related activities can lead to heightened anxiety for individuals with eating disorders. The fear of judgment or criticism can be particularly distressing. Eating disorder behaviors often lead to feelings of guilt and shame. The abundance of food during the holidays can exacerbate these emotions, making individuals reluctant to engage in festivities. Also, the pressure to be joyful and festive during the holidays can intensify feelings of depression for individuals who are already struggling emotionally. Furthermore, the lack of control over meal preparation can be distressing for individuals who struggle with maintaining a sense of control over their eating.  Lastly, for those who lack a supportive social network, the holiday season can amplify feelings of isolation and loneliness, potentially triggering disordered eating behaviors as a way of coping.

Social Factors Related to Holidays With An Eating Disorder:

Friends and family may encourage individuals to “indulge” during holiday gatherings, unaware of the individual’s struggles with eating disorders. This pressure can lead to internal conflict and increased anxiety. This pressure may intensify feelings of guilt and shame if they feel unable to meet those expectations. Unsolicited comments about appearance, weight, and eating habits from family members or friends can trigger heightened self-consciousness and comparison, contributing to negative self-perceptions. Individuals with eating disorders might feel alienated during social events due to their focus on food avoidance or specific eating patterns. This isolation can intensify feelings of difference and loneliness. Additionally, the holiday season can bring back memories of past traumas, which may be linked to family dynamics, social interactions, or body image. These memories can contribute to emotional distress and disordered behaviors. Lastly, media portrayals of “holiday indulgence” and “getting in shape for the new year” can exacerbate body dissatisfaction and promote harmful dieting behaviors.

Strategies for Surviving the Holidays With An Eating Disorder

Surviving the holidays with an eating disorder can be challenging, but with careful planning, self-awareness, and support, individuals can navigate the difficulties and prioritize their well-being. Here are some strategies to help someone with an eating disorder get through the holidays:

Set Realistic Expectations: Understand that the holidays with an eating disorder or the holidays without an eating disorder may come with emotional challenges, and it’s okay to acknowledge that it might not be a perfect experience. Set realistic expectations for yourself and be compassionate toward yourself if things don’t go exactly as planned.

Communicate Your Needs: Let close friends and family members know about your challenges and sensitivities related to food and body image. Communicating your needs can help reduce pressure and misunderstandings.

Plan Ahead: Prepare mentally for potential triggers and challenges that might arise during holiday events. Create a loose plan for meals and snacks to help you feel more in control. Discuss holiday meals with your support system, and if possible, contribute to the menu planning to include foods you’re comfortable with. Knowing what to expect can help reduce anxiety.

Create a Support System: Identify friends, family members, or therapists who understand your struggles and can provide emotional support during the holidays. Having someone you can turn to for guidance and reassurance can be invaluable.

Use Coping Skills: Have a list of coping strategies you can turn to when emotions run high. This could include deep breathing, journaling, or meditation. Use journaling to express your feelings, track your progress, and remind yourself of your motivations for recovery.

Practice Self-Care and self-compassion: Be kind to yourself and acknowledge that you’re doing your best. Don’t beat yourself up over perceived mistakes. Prioritize self-care strategies that work for you, such as mindfulness, deep breathing, or engaging in creative activities. These practices can help you manage stress and stay grounded.

Have an Escape Plan: If a social situation becomes overwhelming, have a plan in place to step away for a moment. This could involve taking a short walk, finding a quiet space, or engaging in a grounding exercise.

Set Time Limits: If certain social events are anxiety-provoking, consider setting time limits so you know when you can leave if needed. If a situation becomes overwhelming, have an exit strategy in place to remove yourself from the environment if necessary. Think of a “safe place” you can turn to for some quiet time or time to practice breathing exercises.

Set Boundaries: Let trusted friends and family members know about your dietary needs and limitations to avoid uncomfortable situations. Politely decline food-related discussions or comments that might be triggering. It’s okay to decline invitations to events that you feel might trigger your eating disorder or anxiety. Focus on participating in activities that make you feel comfortable and supported.

Create a Supportive Environment: Surround yourself with people who understand and respect your boundaries. If possible, share your concerns with the event hosts, so they can be mindful of the food and environment.

Set Realistic Goals: Set achievable goals for yourself during the holidays, such as trying a new coping strategy or engaging in a favorite activity. If you’re attending gatherings, consider bringing a dish that you feel comfortable eating. This way, you know there’s an option available that aligns with your needs.

Focus on Non-Food Activities: Embrace holiday activities that don’t revolve around food, such as decorating, crafting, or enjoying festive movies. Engage in non-food-related activities during holiday gatherings, such as playing games, having conversations, or participating in hobbies. This can help shift the focus away from food.

Practice Mindful Eating: If you choose to participate in holiday meals, practice mindful eating. Pay attention to your hunger and fullness cues, and savor the flavors and textures of the food you’re enjoying.

Prepare Coping Strategies: Have a list of coping strategies at hand, such as grounding techniques, journaling, or deep breathing, that you can use if you feel triggered or overwhelmed.

Practice Positive Self-Talk: Challenge negative thoughts about food and your body by replacing them with realistic and compassionate self-talk.

Avoid Comparisons: Refrain from comparing yourself to others or their behaviors during the holidays. Remember that everyone’s journey is unique, and you are working toward your own recovery.

Reward Yourself: Acknowledge your achievements, no matter how small, and treat yourself to something enjoyable as a form of self-care.

Seek Professional Support: Continue therapy sessions or support group meetings during the holiday season. A therapist can help you process your emotions and provide guidance on managing challenges.

Takeaway: Surviving the Holidays With An Eating Disorder

Surviving the holidays is overwhelming, but with planning, it can be enjoyable. Recovery is a journey, and surviving the holidays is just a part of that journey. Be patient with yourself and celebrate every step you take towards healing. Remember that seeking help and using these strategies is a sign of strength, not weakness. The goal is to prioritize your well-being and recovery, even during holiday-related challenges. If you find yourself struggling, don’t hesitate to contact Best Within You Therapy & Wellness, for support and guidance.

Thank you to Dr. Amanda parker for this article about tips to help with surviving the holidays With An Eating Disorder. If you would like to schedule an appointment with Dr. Parker please visit our appointment page.