It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Or is it?
The holidays can trigger all sorts of emotions from anxiety to depression to grief to excitement. Socializing with family may trigger trauma responses which may lead us to fall back into old, unhelpful patterns of coping. All of this is normal and okay! For those struggling with eating disorders, the approaching holidays can feel like tackling an unrelenting beast. Mainstream society tends to center holidays and celebrations around food and “overindulgence” in contrast to the day-to-day normalized restriction disguised as health and diet culture. Not to mention that when January rolls around we are met with the whiplash of diets, fitness goals, resolutions to modify our bodies, the notion to “get back on track”, and deprivation in order to compensate for the holidays.
With food AND stress being a big part of holiday celebrations, it is no surprise individuals may overeat, eat for comfort, or binge. As a note, overeating is not the same as binge eating disorder, though overeating and binge eating are often used interchangeably. Binge eating disorder refers to a specific set of ongoing behaviors that include feeling out of control when eating, feeling unable to stop eating even when full, eating very quickly, consuming a large amount of food to the point of physical discomfort, eating in secrecy, and feeling intense shame and embarrassment after eating. It often co-occurs with low self-esteem, chronic dieting, and depression. The following tips may be helpful for those struggling with binge eating disorder as well as other forms of disordered eating.
Tip #1: Be Gentle with Yourself + Avoid Perfectionism
Recovery is messy, period. It can become even messier around the holidays when you are thrown into new situations outside of your usual comfort zone. Don’t expect perfection. In order to continue recovery, it is important to practice self-compassion, the antidote to shame. The holidays can lead to a slippery slope of restricting in order to “indulge,” feeling guilty about the amount of food you’ve consumed, and then trying to compensate by restricting again. It’s a vicious cycle of shame. Consider the holidays an opportunity to break the cycle. Remember that when you restrict and limit your food intake, you are likely to eat more because your body wants to nourish and protect you. Be gentle with yourself.
Tip #2: Create a Flexible Plan
Leading up to the holidays, collaborate with your dietitian, therapist, and other healthcare providers to come up with a flexible plan. The keyword here is flexible. This plan may include brief check-ins with providers, coming up with a list of coping tools that work well for you, setting intentions and naming affirmations, and identifying additional support from friends or family. You might discuss what boundaries you need to draw with family members and might spend time discussing anxieties and fears and setting reasonable and realistic goals for challenging your eating disorder voice. Remember that it is okay to ask for help and to need additional support during this stressful time.
Tip #3: Assemble Your Support System
Prior to holiday gatherings, it may be helpful to have a discussion with your identified support system about how they can help you. This might include being in close proximity with you during meal times, naming boundaries in terms of how much time you spend at events and how you might respond to unhelpful diet culture comments, asking them to check in with you, and debriefing after events. Make sure your support system knows how to best support you and reflect on what you are needing so that you can express it clearly.
Tip #4: Neutralize Foods + Give Yourself Permission to Eat
This is a big one. You may likely hear diet culture comments at holiday gatherings with people referring to food as “bad,” expressing feeling “guilty” after eating, or talking about how they’re going to have to “work off” that slice of pie. Remember that food is just food. It’s not morally good or bad. I have never heard of a sweet potato or a buttered roll committing crimes against anyone. Roasted broccoli and iced sugar cookies can both fit into your meals and neither is better than the other. By neutralizing foods, giving yourself permission to eat any kind of food, and rejecting an all-or-nothing view of eating (i.e., “Well, I already got off track, so I may as well just give in and keep eating.”), you can break out of the exhausting restrict-binge-restrict shame cycle.
Tip #5: Notice + Honor Hunger Cues
A lot of times, people “save up” for a holiday meal by skipping breakfast or lunch and ignoring hunger cues. It is so important to honor your hunger cues regardless of what you might eat later in the day. This is an integral part of recovery in fostering self-trust and a stronger mind-body connection. By neutralizing foods and giving yourself permission to eat a variety of foods, you can avoid the scarcity mentality that often leads to binge eating. For example, if you decide that sweets are “bad” but you’ve “saved up” for them by not eating all day, you develop a mindset that you can only eat sweets in this specific and limited setting. Obviously you’re going to want to eat more if this is your only chance and you’re already overly hungry! By putting all foods on the table and honoring your hunger cues, you’re more likely to eat to the point of satisfaction rather than to an uncomfortable fullness.
<— Hunger Fullness Scale
Check out the hunger fullness scale graphic to get a better understanding of hunger and fullness levels.
Tip #6: Make Space for Coping Tools + Activities Unrelated to Food
Not all your mental space needs to be dedicated to worrying about food, and that’s a beautiful part of recovery. Make time for activities unrelated to food like watching movies, catching up with long-distance friends and family, snuggling up on the couch and reading, participating in family and friend traditions, going for a walk or a hike, watching sports, and participating in joyful movement. It is important to prioritize “you” time and self-care, even if it’s a short amount. Even in overwhelming spaces when you’re surrounded by others, you might make a plan to sneak away to practice deep breathing, watch a cute animal video, or check in with one of your support buddies. Jot down a list of your favorite coping tools and keep it in an accessible place so that when you notice feelings of discomfort arising you can use your tried-and-true techniques.
GETTING STARTED WITH THERAPY
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