Eating Disorder Recovery Is Hard During The Holidays. Here's How To Cope.

People recovering from disordered eating share what actually helps them through big holiday meals.
This time of year can be particularly triggering if you're recovering from an eating disorder. Try these strategies from people who have been there.
Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images
This time of year can be particularly triggering if you're recovering from an eating disorder. Try these strategies from people who have been there.

Not all eating disorder advice out there is good, especially when it comes to dealing with the holidays ― and not only is that a shame, it can be dangerous.

This time of year can be an incredibly tough time for people recovering from all types of eating disorders, since there’s a huge focus on food.

If you’ve struggled with coping, here’s some advice from people recovering from eating disorders about what actually helps them before, during and after a big holiday meal.

Start with self-care and preparing for potential triggers.

First, figure out the plan. “I’ve found knowing what’s happening — i.e. what’s on the menu, what time dinner is scheduled for — to be beneficial,” said Sam Thomas, a 35-year-old writer, speaker and mental health campaigner who’s recovering from bulimia. “This can take the edge off anxiety [about] not knowing by knowing what the plan is in advance.”

However, he encouraged people to expect the unexpected at the same time, since last-minute changes beyond your control may arise.

General self-care can help, too. “When I sleep and eat in the week before the holiday, I don’t have as many stressful moments during the holiday,” said Eva Thomas, a 26-year-old whose family celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas.

Other self-care options include cleaning, reading in a bubble bath, planning an extra therapy visit or talking to a friend.

Communicate your boundaries and have a plan for if the conversation goes south.

Remember, you’re allowed to set boundaries. “Talk to your family and friends about the types of conversations that aren’t helpful, and give suggestions for alternatives,” said Grace Ellen Hanna, a 25-year-old in Florida who recovered from anorexia and now works for a mental health tech startup.

Even if people know your eating disorder history, they may unintentionally make unhelpful comments. “Diet culture is so pervasive in our society that many people don’t even realise when they are saying or doing things that could be potentially harmful,” Hanna explained. So, having a proactive conversation is often best.

When sharing which topics are off limits for you, you can explain how they detract from what really matters during the holidays, if you want. “[Those topics] distract from the spirit of the holiday and prevent everyone from enjoying the time together,” Hanna said.

Since you may hear triggering things during the meal regardless of your efforts and your loved ones’ intentions, find a friend to text. “I like to identify a friend who is familiar with intuitive eating, diet culture, etc. and text them when I hear something annoying or frustrating,” said Mimi Cole, an eating disorder survivor and therapist-in-training at the University of North Carolina. “It’s really nice to have someone who understands and supports you when the people around you are making you feel bad about the food you are eating or your body.”

“I remind myself that it is not my job to teach everyone about diet culture in one night, and that it is OK if I don’t engage in every conversation.”

- Mimi Cole

Additionally, consider deciding what you’d like to say when those hurtful statements pop up. “I usually try to bring up another topic or address it quickly by saying something like, ‘It doesn’t matter,’ or, ‘Your body is good,’” Cole said.

Other options include ignoring the comment or stepping away. “I remind myself that it is not my job to teach everyone about diet culture in one night, and that it is OK if I don’t engage in every conversation,” she said. “I can remind myself of what I know about my body and also take physical space if I need it.”

Affirmations can also help. “I like having affirmation cards or coping cards available to me so that if I get overwhelmed or stuck in my thoughts, I can have an easy reminder of what is true about me through the conversation or situation,” Cole said.

For example: “I am loved regardless of how I look” and “Food has no moral value.”

Strategies like these — called “coping ahead” — are crucial. “By coping ahead, you can feel more prepared rather than assuming everything is going to be ‘fine’ and then getting surprised when your Aunt Sally’s comment about your body or her new restrictive diet comes seemingly out of nowhere,” explained Stephanie Zerwas, a clinical psychologist and therapist with Flourish Chapel Hill and an expert affiliated with the National Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders.

If you’d like suggestions from professionals and people who “get it” during this process, think about trying a free support group. The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness hosts virtual groups on Mondays and Saturdays, as well as one for LGBTQIA+ individuals on Wednesdays. The only canceled session will be on Christmas Day. Additionally, ANAD offers virtual support groups that will continue through the holiday season for people of multiple identities.

“Get comfortable with the idea that holidays in recovery — especially early recovery — might look and feel different that holidays before your eating disorder.”

- Grace Ellen Hanna

Try to stay present.

Remember, the holidays won’t last forever, even if it seems like they will. “By putting things into perspective [like that], it can help enormously,” Sam Thomas said.

Sticking to your routine can make the day feel more “normal.” Hanna recommended eating the same amounts at the same times throughout the day, as well as going to bed and waking up at the same times as usual. “Get comfortable with the idea that holidays in recovery — especially early recovery — might look and feel different that holidays before your eating disorder,” she added.

If you feel triggered, grounding is a mindfulness practice that can help you stay calm and present. “I love the activity 5-4-3-2-1,” Cole said. “You name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can taste and one thing you can smell.”

You can also reframe your thoughts. “If your mind continues to wander back to what you just ate, gently remind yourself that this is your eating disorder attempting to mess with what is supposed to be a happy day, and that you have the power to stop it from doing that,” Hanna said.

Before or after eating, consider encouraging loved ones to do something comforting with you. “I try to use healthier coping mechanisms while visiting my family, like going outside or watching a comforting TV show,” Eva Thomas said.

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Plan fun things to do afterward and reach out to your support system.

After the meal or the holiday season, do something that makes you feel safe and happy. “This helps to keep me moving forward and not stressing too much about the holiday itself,” Eva Thomas said.

Sam Thomas encouraged this, too. “Planning this downtime after the meal may help you get through it,” he explained.

This time could entail watching your favorite movie under fluffy blankets, working on an art project, hanging out with your pet or something else you love.

If you’d like to process your emotions, consider journaling or sending your therapist an email. “Even if I don’t get a long response, it really helps me to externally process some of my frustrations and experiences that we can talk about more in depth in session,” Cole said.

Overall, trust your needs and be compassionate toward yourself.

While keeping these ideas in mind, also remember this: You’re dealing with a tough situation and working hard. You deserve to be proud of yourself.

Moreover, do what’s best for you, even if it looks different from what someone else is doing. “Just because others eat a certain way doesn’t mean you have to,” said Rebecca Leslie, a psychologist who specialises in helping people change their relationship with food. “Trust yourself and what you have learned from your therapist or dietitian … [And pack] a bar or snack in your purse if your family tends to go long times without eating.”

Ultimately, remember recovery isn’t perfect — and you’re not alone in what you’re going through. “Holidays tend to be triggering for many people,” Leslie said. “[Recovery] will have highs and lows. If you struggle, don’t beat yourself up.”

Help and support: