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Mental Health Blog

Practice Tips: 8 Ways to Navigate the Holidays with an Eating Disorder

Interview with

November 17, 2022

The holiday season is upon us, which can mean endless gatherings around food and family members. For some people, this evokes feelings of excitement and hopefulness. For others, the holiday season evokes feelings of loneliness and stress.

What can the holiday season feel like for someone who’s struggling with an eating disorder or in recovery from an eating disorder?

For starters, the holiday season tends to be filled with unexpected events, social situations, and celebrations around food that can trigger people with an eating disorder or in recovery. Friends or family members might unintentionally trigger a loved one’s stress and anxiety by discussing food, weight gain, diet plans, and exercise at the dinner table.

Whether someone is currently struggling with an eating disorder or in recovery, the holidays can feel scary. The grand selection of food, disruption of routines, and onslaught of social events can magnify a person’s eating disorder challenges, and consume them with negative thoughts and feelings.

How can someone struggling with an eating disorder navigate these challenges during the often-hectic holiday season?

With support from your trained therapist, planning, and preparation, you or your loved one struggling with an eating disorder or in recovery can find comfort and joy throughout this holiday season.

We’ve asked Shanti Sponder, LMHC, ATR with HBH to share 8 eating disorder management techniques used in therapy.

To hear Shanti’s 8 tips to navigate the holidays with an eating disorder, please read on.

1. Plan ahead and keep your appointments

Shanti suggests planning ahead and creating a consistent schedule with your therapist and nutritionist throughout the holidays.

With all the holiday festivities, it might feel convenient to skip your therapy session or nutrition appointment. Try to remember that stress and anxiety can arise during the holidays, and this is an opportune time to get support from your care team.

  • If you’re traveling for the holidays, schedule your appointments with your trained therapist or nutritionist prior to your departure. Ask your care team when they will be available during the week of your holiday festivities, and schedule your appointments accordingly.
  • Ask your therapist or nutritionist if it would be appropriate to go over your plan and build supportive coping mechanisms prior to your departure.
  • Continue to see your therapist or nutritionist during the holidays.
  • If you’ve established a regular meal plan with your care team, try to stay as consistent as possible.

2. Communicate your boundaries and set an exit time

Set clear and healthy boundaries with your friends and family members to minimize stress and anxiety provoking situations if they do arise during the holidays.

  • Know which friends and family members you’ll be visiting to avoid unexpected situations or conversations that might trigger your eating disorder.

For instance, if your dad’s side of the family obsessively exercises before the thanksgiving meal, it might be conducive to your mental health to celebrate this thanksgiving with other family members or friends.

  • Set a specific exit time to leave the dinner or gathering before it becomes triggering or exhausting.

3. Set realistic expectations ahead of time

If you’re traveling for the holidays, Shanti suggests reflecting on any expectations that you’re going in with. Consider what you can do to share appropriate expectations with your loved ones or friends.

Someone with an eating disorder or in recovery might suggest not discussing food, calories, portion sizes, meal plans, weight, or exercise during their visit home. However, this can be challenging for another person experiencing their own set of challenges related to food and their body image.

An appropriate expectation could be not to discuss food, calories, portion sizes, meal plans, weight, and exercise at the dinner table.

4. Focus on what the holidays mean to you

Shanti recommends finding your own meaning of the holidays. You might ask yourself if it’s necessary to center the holidays around food.

  • Take focus off the holiday meal by thinking about what activities bring you joy and make you feel safe during the holidays. Is it spending time with friends and loved ones? Watching your favorite holiday movie with your family? Admiring holiday decorations and lights? Nurture the special activity that brings you joy and makes you feel safe around the holidays.
  • Take deep breaths and think about the moments and people that you’re grateful for during the holidays. Show gratitude to your loved ones by spending quality time together, experiencing new surroundings, getting outside, or offering to help clean.
  • Allow yourself to leave any situation that feels uncomfortable or triggering.

5. Get plenty of rest

For people struggling with eating disorders or any mental health situations, continuous social events can trigger feelings of stress and exhaustion. Shanti recommends getting plenty of rest before, during, and after the holidays.

6. Schedule time for self-care everyday

While it might seem difficult to indulge in self-care during the holiday festivities, it’s necessary to decompress and keep yourself feeling healthy and calm with your favorite self-care practices.

Shanti shares some of her favorite self-care practices that you might enjoy;

  • Journaling
  • Reading
  • Listening to music
  • Meditating
  • Doing a puzzle with a family member or friend
  • Taking a nap
  • Taking a bath or shower

7. Be kind and compassionate to yourself

There’s no reason to beat yourself up for feeling anxious around the holidays. This season can be stressful and overwhelming for everyone, let alone people with an eating disorder or in recovery.

Shanti suggests being kind and compassionate to yourself. By stepping out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself, you are doing something that takes incredible strength and courage.

  • Remind yourself that you’re dealing with a tough situation and you deserve to be proud of yourself.
  • Discuss your inner narrative with your therapist, and practice working through your thoughts and feelings together.
  • Forgive yourself if you mess up. If you experience a setback, whether you’re in recovery from an eating disorder or another stage of life, know that you’re doing your best. Forgive yourself and move forward.

8. Stay away from alcohol and drugs

Substance use does more harm than good for people with an eating disorder or in recovery.

Shanti suggests avoiding alcohol and drugs during the holidays, as consumption can lead to increased symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as changes in appetite and eating. There’s no need to add another wrench into your list, this holiday season.

The Takeaway

We know that navigating the holiday season when you’re struggling with an eating disorder can feel scary. Many people suffering from anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder might feel anxious and stressed out about holiday parties, social events, travel plans, and dinners.

That’s why we at HBH are taking time to not only highlight the challenges that someone might face when struggling with an eating disorder during the holidays, but to offer practice tips to support anyone experiencing an eating disorder or in eating disorder recovery.

With professional support and effective strategies you or your loved one struggling with an eating disorder can find peace, harmony, and happiness this holiday season.

We offer therapy, counseling, and psychiatric services across the state of Massachusetts. Our offices are located in Amherst, Franklin, West Springfield, and Wilbraham Massachusetts. We also offer online services such as tele-therapy to accommodate your preferences and schedule.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder or eating disorder behaviors, please contact one of our many counselors, therapists, psychologists, or psychiatrists today and find out how we can help you through recovery.

About The Author

Nettie Hoagland Headshot

Nettie Hoagland is a writer with experience in local news reporting and nonprofit communications and community development. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in Media Studies, Journalism, and Digital Arts from Saint Michael’s College. Nettie is a believer in the healing power of the arts to create connection and community. She is passionate about using writing and storytelling as an instrument for personal and social growth in the field of mental health. Nettie is endlessly curious about all things mental and behavioral health.

Shanti Sponder Headshot

Shanti is an experienced counselor and art therapist who views therapy as a collaborative, judgement-free integrative process leading to personal growth. She understands it can be difficult for a client to just sit down, open up and talk about their feelings and uses various techniques to help the client feel more comfortable. She approaches therapy by meeting each unique client where they are and tailors her style to support their therapeut More About Author →