Strategies for Holiday Stressors

By Julianna Hindemith, Silver Linings’ Volunteer

Once again the holiday season is upon us. Pumpkins and plastic spiders are being replaced by sparkling lights, candy canes and luscious evergreen wreaths. However, the holiday season isn’t a joyous celebration for everyone. It can be a very triggering time for individuals who have an eating disorder. It is actually common for people with eating disorders to experience an increase in symptoms as the holidays approach. The heightened emphasis on food during this time is one reason. Pressure to be more social and upbeat can also increase anxiety.

If I think back to the “holidays” of my eating disorder years, for a long time they played like a series - the current season being more dramatic than the last. I would always tell myself a month prior that if I lost a ton of weight before attending a family celebration, then I would finally be allowed to enjoy myself, and eat and act like everyone else. In reality of course this never worked. I would still be anxious about every bite and every comment, pick fights with my parents and siblings, and count down the moments until I could go home and be alone with my eating disorder. But that was then.

Gratefully the holidays are much less stressful for me now, and my hope in writing this is that this can become the case for you too. Whether you are currently struggling with an eating disorder, in recovery from an eating disorder or caring for someone with an eating disorder, here are some tips that helped me better navigate this time of the year:

  1. If you are currently struggling with an eating disorder being mindful that the holidays are about being with your loved ones can help shift your focus away from food. Try to dial down the noise of the eating disorder and take the time to reflect on what the season truly means to you. Try to remember that you are loved and have much love to give. Also, with those who you feel comfortable confiding in, try to openly discuss how they can support you during this triggering time.

  2. If you are currently in recovery don’t feel the need to attend every event that you are invited to. Instead, prioritize the parties that you feel the most comfortable attending and be sure to structure your day to help you keep to your prescribed recovery plan. This is especially important with respect to your scheduled meal times. Also, openly dialogue with your treatment team about any concerns about the holidays that come up for you. You don’t need to go this alone. Let them help you develop effective coping strategies that work for you.

  3. If you are a caregiver of someone with an eating disorder, try to remain positive. The holidays are about  spending quality time together. Try to come up with some non food-centered activities that all of you can enjoy as a family. Regarding your loved one’s eating behaviours over the holidays, understanding where they are in their recovery process combined with validation, goes a long way. For example, if they are not yet ready to eat in front of others, be supportive. Your acceptance and respect for their process will mean a lot.

If you keep only one thing in mind this holiday season let it be this: healing takes time, be kind to yourself.

Silver Linings clinical advisor and Registered Psychologist, Adele Fox, has some additional tips for not only surviving but thriving this holiday season. These are as follows:

  1. For someone struggling with an eating disorder.
    Have an exit strategy
    so that if you become overwhelmed at a function you can make an escape. Try to avoid putting yourself in situations where you have no control over being able to take care of yourself.
    Eat regularly. Do not starve yourself in anticipation of Christmas dinner or an event as this can lead to an increase in symptoms and stress.
    Take a time out if having to eat at a buffet or family style spread to breathe and visualize what you will choose for your plate. Do a walkabout of the food table and then step back and consciously make your food selections.
    Limit your alcohol intake. Alcohol can cause you to become disinhibited and lead to binging/purging behaviors and difficulties with managing your emotions.   
    Take one or two food items that are safe for you if attending a house function so that, worst case scenario, you will feel comfortable eating something. Another option is to plan to arrive at a function after the meal.   

  2. For loved ones.
    Avoid talking about dieting and making weight/shape or appearance related comments.
    If you want to share a compliment, focus on non-appearance related traits: a person’s laugh, how their eyes light up when they smile or their great sense of humor.  
    If possible, serve meals in the kitchen so that there is not an abundance of food on the table. Serve fun foods (chocolates, candy, dessert items) at set times or lay these out for a limited time only then put them away or send them home with guests.
    Take care of yourself too. Make sure that you have support such as a therapist, a trusted friend, online support groups or literature on the recovery process. Loving someone who is struggling with an eating disorder can be exhausting and stressful.

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