Eating disorder recovery is an ongoing process, and the stressors related to holidays have the potential to be a risk factor for relapse. There are ways to enjoy the holiday foods and the social experience, however, without jeopardizing your recovery.
Though the holiday season is often rife with Christmas carols and warm chocolate beverages, it is also accompanied by a lot of stress. For the average person, this stress is often related to seeing certain relatives that we don’t have a great rapport with, meeting a significant other’s parents, and more.
While these are certainly valid stressors, for those in eating disorder recovery, the focus of stress may rest in the centrality of food for the three-to-four-month holiday season. Being bombarded by foods that are often considered “glutinous” or “bad” can cause extremely high levels of anxiety for someone, even if they have been in recovery for an extended period.
Furthermore, the social stressors related to the holiday season that most of us experience are often exacerbated by the extreme stress someone might be experiencing with food. During the holidays, relatives may comment on body size or insist that food is tried and eaten even when we politely decline. There is also often an immense amount of diet culture talk in which people around us discuss the diets that they have to go on post-Halloween or post-Thanksgiving. The very behaviors that we diagnose as disordered in someone with an eating disorder become a topic of dessert discussion, with aunts trading tips and cousins headed out for an evening walk to “burn off” the holiday food.
Despite these obstacles, the holiday season doesn’t have to be one mired with stress and grief for those of us in recovery from an eating disorder. Instead, some various tips and tricks can assist us in standing strong in our recovery, even in the face of such high stress.
Have a recovery-buddy that you can reach out to.
It’s important to have community around you in recovery, especially in times of high stress or in moments where the diet culture talk will be strong. To buffer yourself against the inevitable disordered chatter, enlist a friend, either in person or via text, to help support you through it. This could be someone else also in recovery, or someone you trust who supports you in your recovery. When the diet talk begins to feel overwhelming, take a breather and shoot off a message to someone that you know will understand what you’re going through right now, and who will help remind you of all of the things you have gained in your recovery.
There is something extremely satisfying about simply giving yourself the physical space to decompress. When your anxiety rises, excuse yourself to the porch or an empty room. Take some deep breaths. Remind yourself of the many cognitive distortions involved in diet culture driven beliefs. You can even take this opportunity to scroll through your favorite social media platform and find others struggling through the same moments that you are currently grappling with.
Advocate for yourself.
If you’re feeling particularly feisty, family holidays might be a great moment to assert your Health at Every Size®, anti-diet approach to life. Be advised that you likely won’t convert anyone. But the simple act of self-advocating can feel extremely empowering and can help you set boundaries around what you will and won’t allow in your space. Plus, maybe you’ll plant some seeds for people that one day will bloom into someone else’s discovery of a weight-inclusive approach to life and health.
Enjoy the food.
Yes! You are allowed to enjoy the holiday foods in front of you! Eating candy on Halloween and having pie on Thanksgiving is a part of the celebration, and there is nothing wrong with partaking. In fact, if you are able to be in touch with your intuition around what sounds good and what will help your body feel good during these holiday meals and food moments, you will likely gain a sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy.
It is in your power to both enjoy the holiday food and sweets, as well as honor what your body needs. Maybe that means saving leftovers for the week. Maybe that means eating numerous slices of pie until your belly hurts because it was just that good. Either situation, or any situation in between, is morally equivalent. You are allowed to experience pleasure and joy in food. Part of recovery is recognizing and honoring this.
Focus on things other than food.
Holidays aren’t meant to only be about the food that’s on the table. They’re about coming together and having fun with those who you love and who love you. Yes, there is yummy food to eat, and you should eat it! But don’t forget that the ultimate goal of eating disorder recovery is to be able to live your life alongside food–even holiday foods–in a neutral capacity. Sometimes that means not allowing food to have so much power over you, and remembering that there are other things to do around the holiday season that aren’t food-related.
Remember that one meal doesn’t determine your worth.
These holidays feel huge, like whatever you do on that day will define the rest of your year. But the truth is that it’s just one meal. It will be over soon. You will get through it.
These are just a few techniques that you can play around with during the stretch from late October to early January. Halloween candy doesn’t have to feel so stressful. Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t have to make you miserable. You can experience a food-focused holiday without relapsing, and if you do relapse, know that tomorrow is another day. You are not a bad person for struggling with your recovery; you are not a failure. You are just a human being, attempting to get by in this very complicated world.
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Ashley M. Seruya is a social work student, virtual assistant, and content creator specializing in eating disorder recovery, Health at Every Size, and weight stigma. Learn more about her work at ashleymseruya.com or on her Instagram at @cozibae.
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