Thanksgiving can be a wonderful day filled with family togetherness and traditional foods. It can also be very stressful, due to the very same things: family togetherness and traditional foods. Several Thanksgiving dishes, such as pie or mashed potatoes, may be experienced as “trigger” foods for those diagnosed with an eating disorder. Interpersonal dynamics can also be challenging. This can be in the form of diet culture, where relatives converse about their latest diets, and comment directly about their own and others’ weight. It can also be general conflict, such as Uncle Bill arguing about politics.

Enter coping methods. Also known as coping skills, these are strategies to help get through difficult times and emotions. They are unique to each individual: what works for one person may not be the best match for the other. Coping methods are meant to help us survive a troublesome time, but they themselves can have larger ramifications. Some behaviors, such as drinking, self-harm, and eating disorder symptoms, can also be viewed as coping mechanisms. At some point, however, the negative outweighs the positive for those behaviors.

While learning new, healthier ways to cope, remember that recovery takes time. Old habits are not quickly and automatically replaced with new ones. It takes time and patience to practice new coping skills. Here are some coping methods to help when the festivities feel like too much.

Calming Coping Methods

Engaging in calming practices before the Thanksgiving meal can help reduce emotional reactivity, while the same practices afterward can help a return to baseline.

  • Meditation. Even a few minutes of inward reflection can help keep feelings more balanced throughout the day.
  • Gentle Joyful Movements. Stretching, walking, and yoga are some of the ways to help feel more centered and relaxed before a social gathering. If your treatment team has advised against such activities for the time being, then honor their recommendations.

During the day, continue to use calming techniques as needed:

  • Take a timeout. If feeling flooded or anxious, a timeout can be as simple as excusing yourself to a quiet room for ten minutes.
  • Connect with your support system. For example, text a friend for moral support.

Setting Boundaries

Everyone has the right to set physical, emotional, and mental boundaries for themselves. Boundaries are not selfish, and they can be communicated politely. They help us set limits and protect ourselves.

  • Visualize. Setting boundaries takes practice, so plan ahead for the most important ones. For example, what is the most crucial thing that could set your recovery back? It may not overtly be about food; perhaps it is Aunt Grace’s tendency to criticize your cooking.
  • Plan some responses in advance. Ever think of a snappy comeback after the fact? That is very common! Your responses to someone’s boundary violation do not have to be poetic or memorable. They just need to be clear. So think of a few in advance, such as, “Grandpa, I know you are concerned about me, but talking about how much I have on my plate is not helpful.” Distraction and diverting the conversation are other possible options.

Practicing Self-Compassion

The voice of an eating disorder is the antithesis of self-compassion. And although it may sound convincing, it is a liar. One of the most powerful antidotes to shame is to treat yourself as you would a friend.

  • Acknowledge that suffering is part of life. Remind yourself that everybody feels inadequate sometimes, including everyone in the room. This places our individual experience into a larger context.

Above all, remember the big picture, where Thanksgiving is just one day of the year. If you find you need outside support, please seek treatment.

Barbara Spanjers, MS MFT is a therapist and wellness coach who helps people feel more attuned with food and their body. Learn more