The holidays can be a particularly difficult time for those struggling with eating disorders or disordered eating issues. Experiencing an increase in thoughts about food, weight and body is very common for these individuals during this time and can be related to emotions activated around family members, or the hyper focus on food and weight perpetuated by diet culture. Whatever the source of the eating disorder or disordered eating, here are 5 tips to reduce the chance of spiraling into eating disorder thoughts and behaviors over the holidays.
1) Set healthy boundaries. Pre-plan how long you will be attending events and being around certain family members who feel emotionally unsafe or were emotionally unsafe in the past. Remember, most of us have the choice to decide who we want to be around. If certain people leave you feeling invalidated or have caused you pain in the past, limit how much (if at all) you see these people. I acknowledge that younger people may not have this same choice and are often forced to spend holidays with abusive family members. In this case, make sure to arrange more frequent therapy appointments and visits with supportive friend groups around this time. Express these feelings of anger or sadness towards family members with someone who can validate them.
2) Increase therapy visits. If you have a therapist, it is a great idea to increase the frequency of your appointments—yes, several times a week is okay! If you aren’t seeing a therapist, this is a good time to get connected with one, and preferably one who’s familiar with eating disorders. In addition, make sure your therapist is trauma-informed. Like most mental health issues, eating disorders are often a protective response to traumatic life events. Trauma can result from a variety of experiences, including an emotionally invalidating childhood experience, diet culture, and life-threatening situations. You will want a therapist who validates your symptoms as protective responses to life, rather than pathologizing them as biological defects.
3) Decrease diet culture influence. This is so important. Diet culture is pervasive. In particular, social media is a huge culprit when it comes to influencing eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. Take an afternoon to unfollow and delete accounts that promote diet culture and idealize thin bodies. At the same time, follow accounts that promote your other unrelated interests e.g. skiing or art. Also, follow accounts that portray bodies of all shapes, sizes and colors in positive ways.
4) Befriend the eating disorder. Believe it or not, your eating disorder is protective, and eating disorders cannot be hated into healing. They exist for a reason and have an important job. Often times this job is to manage feelings of shame, rejection, and fear. These feelings can be very overwhelming—therefore, the eating disorder oftentimes comes to the rescue by providing a person a focus and a purpose outside of their emotions. Not only does it provide a focus, but oftentimes, the eating disorder can serve to gain temporary validation (that feels like a “high”), which also helps escape the feelings of shame, rejection and fear. Therefore, it is only through befriending the eating disorder, that they begin to relax, regulate and trust YOU to take the reins around food. A great exercise in befriending your eating disorder is externalizing it. Does it have a name? An age? Does it look like a younger version of you, or older? Is it an animal? Try to represent it through artwork or pictures.
5) Increase Reading. Lastly, put down your phone and pick up a book you’ve wanted to read for a while. If interested in recovery materials, I suggest Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole or Health At Every Size by Lindo Bacon. Both of these books provide a thorough deconstruction of diet culture and encourage a general compassion, acceptance and appreciation towards our bodies. If you’ve spent a large amount of your life influenced by diet culture and reading diet culture materials, these books offer an opposing and very healthy viewpoint that will increase feelings of well-being and connection to your body.