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There’s no way around it. The holiday season can be an extremely difficult time for those suffering from an eating disorder. No matter what stage you’re at in your recovery journey – it’s simply hard to be around family and friends in social environments that revolve around festive meals and food-related traditions. In short, for those struggling with an eating disorder, the holiday season can be the “superbowl” of stress and anxiety. 

I remember in years past the slippery slope of only making Christmas cookies with my family if they had all vegan and gluten-free substitutes or swapping hot chocolate for chocolate protein powder to eventually not even allowing myself to be in the same room as the cocoa and cookies. I look back on those years with sadness for the girl who was surrounded by family and friends yet felt so alone and helpless. And I also feel profound gratitude for my recovery and now being able to take part in those “lost moments” that ended up never truly being lost. 

It can feel impossible to try to keep your eating disorder from controlling your holiday. But you are not alone. I’m right here cheering you on. And I have a list of tips that will hopefully help you stand a little taller against that ED voice and avoid situations that may feel triggering for disordered eating. From Christmas dinner to a friend’s white elephant party, you can run through this list beforehand as a tool to give yourself the space and support you need during the often-hectic holiday season. 

  1. Have A Plan

Eating disorders thrive in isolation, and will often tempt you to avoid holiday events because of the anxiety of navigating it. Planning ahead can help release some of that discomfort, if you know what to expect! What time will you arrive and leave by? If you’re feeling anxious what are some helpful affirmations or reminders you can have on hand to repeat to yourself? If you’re working with a treatment team and dietitian closely, what types of foods are you aiming to try or incorporate? Having a plan for the social engagement helps take back some of the control the ED claims to possess. 

  1. Ask For Help

Building off the above point, by reaching out and communicating your stresses and needs to others, you take away some of the powerful hold of the ED that tries to keep you stuck in isolation. Setting up a support system is essential to navigating the holidays. If you work with a treatment team, talk with your therapist and dietitian about your worries or hesitations. Have a friend or family member familiar with what you’re going through there to support you – from having a code word to exit stressful situations to being a calming presence to sit in silence with or try new food around – having at least one partner in the journey with you is important! 

  1. Set Boundaries

Setting boundaries can feel incredibly uncomfortable – especially if you’re a people-pleaser – but can be very necessary during the holidays to preserve your own mental and physical health. This can look like boundaries around your time (e.g. I’ll only be spending an hour at that family gathering) or topics of conversation (e.g. no diet or weight-related talk at the dinner table). Identify what you need and honor it. 

  1. Give Yourself Grace

You won’t do everything perfectly. You may not eat everything according to the meal plan you made with your treatment team. You may hear a comment that sends you over the edge. You may end up feeling just plain burnt out, exhausted and overwhelmed. This is normal. Be gentle and kind to yourself. You’re doing the best you can at this moment in time. And that’s enough. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

Regardless of your plans this holiday season, don’t let your eating disorder stop you from being present with family and friends. It can feel overwhelming, defeating and exhausting, but it does NOT define you. You are so much more. And I hope those “more” parts of you can shine through this holiday. 

By: Maddy Weingast, Assistant for Therapy for Eating Disorders and Body Image