Happier Holidays: Skills for the Season when you have an Eating Disorder

Written by: Kirstin Schafer, Psy.D., Angela Derrick, Ph.D. & Susan McClanahan, Ph.D.

Happier Holidays: Skills for the Season when you have an Eating Disorder

Happier Holidays: Skills for the Season when you have an Eating Disorder

It is the time of year when my clients start to express trepidation about the upcoming holidays and the emphasis on Food, Family, and Feelings.

For someone with an eating disorder, the holidays aren’t always so bright and merry.  In fact, they bring a lot of challenges.

In anticipation of these challenges, I tend to recommend that clients create a “cope ahead” plan, which is essentially a list of skills they will use when confronted with a certain challenge.  Typically, the skills are an extension of the work already happening in the therapy applied to specific holiday settings.  For instance:

  • Reflecting on values is useful this time of year.  Consider what you want your holidays to look like.  If connection is a value, how can you make choices in-line with connection during the family holiday party?  It might be the difference between taking a walk with a family member after the meal or purging.  If your value is spirituality, it might mean choosing prayer or meditation over going back to the appetizers.
  • Identifying and asserting one’s boundaries provides the necessary framework for keeping the holidays feeling safe.  Boundaries can be physical, like needing to take five-minute breaks from the group every hour, or only staying at an event for a certain amount of time. They can be emotional, like letting others know that diet-talk is off-limits this year, or not discussing vulnerable topics with others whom you may feel uncomfortable disclosing personal details. 
  • Mindfulness is a tool that can be used to notice aspects of your surroundings and focus on pleasant senses.  For instance, a mindful walk might include feeling the cold air, smelling the pine trees, taking in the setting sun.  Mindfulness can also mean staying in the moment by focusing on your inner experiences and considering what you need to feel your best (a drink of water, for example, or a nap.) Creating a gratitude list has been shown to have benefits to calm and center the mind. Consider that use of substances impairs an individual’s ability to be present and make choices that are wise-minded. 
Skills for the Season when you have an Eating Disorder
  • Social support can be a lifeline during these times.  Plan to attend on-line or in-person support groups more often in the next few months.  Groups are beneficial because you can ask others how they plan to handle challenges, share your own fears, and receive understanding and validation.  Also, plan to have a few friends on hand who you can reach out to as needed. 
  • Dismantle Expectations for yourself, others, and your idea about how the holidays “should” go.  It is a myth that everyone finds holidays cheerful and magical.  Examine your expectations and ask yourself if these expectations are realistic or worth adjusting.  Perhaps the holidays are a series of events to get through with minimal harm (and maybe some moments of fun) rather than the highlight of the year.  Maybe this year is harder than other years, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be easier in the future.  Maybe it isn’t your responsibility to make sure the holidays go a certain way for others.  Perhaps this is the year to focus more on your own experience and what you need to get through a difficult time.

From SpringSource to you, we wish you the gifts of self-compassion, curiosity, and connection.  Be well.