For those with an eating disorder, Halloween can be a challenging time. Eating disorders and sweets do not typically go together easily, so all that holiday candy can increase stress and hamper recovery. However, it is possible to enjoy Halloween while in recovery from an eating disorder, especially with some planning.
Friends, family, and treatment team members are all integral parts of the support system in eating disorder recovery. While the treatment team can teach coping skills designed to mitigate heightened anxiety, it takes real-world practice to solidify those skills. Therefore, friends and family members can be tremendous allies. Bringing a friend to a party provides empathy and backup should things get too intense. If a friend can’t be there in person, create a plan to call or text them for support.
Have a plan, but be flexible.
When faced with uncertainty, the eating disorder voice is likely to become stronger. Therefore, planning ahead helps anticipate potential pitfalls and perils. However, we cannot always predict all possibilities, so flexibility is just as important. Viewing a plan like a roadmap helps: there is a preferred route, but unexpected detours can happen.
Think through the future event. What could potentially happen, and how might you react? Sketch out possible scenarios and responses. Here are some examples for attending a Halloween party:
- Who will be there that I can talk to? If there is not someone I know well, I will speak to at least one new person.
- What kind of challenge food might I try? If I am feeling too anxious, I can text my mom, practice deep breathing, or step outside in fresh air for five minutes.
- What kinds of activities, besides eating, might be available? I can challenge myself to play one game, or if that feels too tough, I can offer to help the party host clean up.
- What will I do if other guests are too triggering, such as engaging in diet talk? I could volunteer to be the DJ for a while, find someone else to talk to, or give myself permission to go home.
Eat regular meals.
When it comes to eating disorders and sweets, it is tempting to “save up” for sweet treats later in the day. The temptation to undereat in anticipation of a social gathering or trick-or-treating can be strong, but it rarely works as expected. Skipping meals comes at a price, both physically and psychologically. Regular nourishment helps regulate mood and energy, so skipping meals can make it more difficult to cope with stressors. Eating too little also sets up the likelihood of a binge later in the day.
Give permission for self-care.
Self-care is not all bubble baths and pedicures. Self-care is any activity meant to foster all areas of health: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Because eating disorders are ultimately not about food, self-care extends beyond the trick-or-treat pail.
Giving yourself permission to act in your own best interest creates a very flexible framework. It allows for in-the-moment decisions that best support recovery. Therefore, there is no objective right or wrong choice. For example, it might mean giving yourself permission to eat candy or dessert to practice dealing with challenging foods. Or you might decline an offer of candy, especially if it feels like someone else is pushing their own agenda.
Setting personal boundaries is also a form of self-care. For perfectionists and people pleasers, setting a boundary may feel rude. However, it is quite the opposite. Boundaries provide emotional safety by honoring your personal values, needs, and rights. What might this look like? It could be as simple as declining a party invitation if you don’t wish to go, but you’re worried it’ll hurt the other person’s feelings. Personal boundaries help us to be responsible for our own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, without taking on the responsibilities that belong to someone else.
Above all else, maintain self-compassion. From that stance, setbacks fall into perspective. “I had a tough night tonight, but I’m doing the best I can,” moves recovery forward. However, thoughts like “I am such a failure” easily triggers a downward spiral of restriction, bingeing, and/or purging. Like any other skill or mindset shift, treating yourself with compassion takes practice. When it comes to eating disorders and sweets, Halloween is a definite challenge that can also foster healing.
Barbara Spanjers, MS MFT is a therapist and wellness coach who helps people feel more attuned with food and their body. Learn more.