Twinkle lights, snowmen, menorahs, trimmed trees, presents, and some of the greatest movies ever made–‘tis the season. Unfortunately, the holidays also bring stress and, for many, relapses and triggers for mental health issues, including eating disorders. Even the most balanced of people feel the anxiety of the holidays creeping up on them as they start gearing up for the season. Eating disorders in particular can be triggered, not only by the stress and anxiety of the season, but also by all of the focus on food (and holiday weight gain) at so many holiday events.
I felt this first right before Thanksgiving this year. The minor panicking moments, the small flare-ups in my temper that made me feel my control was slipping. But before I had a serious relapse of my eating disorder, I got an email. The message was from the Eating Recovery Center in Denver and it reminded those in their community about how the stress of the holidays often triggers relapses in eating disorders. I’d made it onto their email list-serve from an interview I had done with them on a previous article. Funny how you get paid forward, but not always in the way you think you will be.
For me, just the knowledge that the feelings I was going through were totally normal made such a difference. It was just a reminder, more than anything, that my brain was retreating back to its habitual coping mechanisms during a period of extra stress. So I want to remind those reading, whether they have suffered an eating disorder, are still suffering, or are supporting someone they love through recovery, that there are ways to mitigate how you react the stresses of the holiday season. I interviewed Bonnie Brennan, MA, LPC, clinical director of Eating Recovery Center’s Partial Hospitalization Program to find better ways of dealing with the way eating disorders can flare up during the holidays.
One of the best pieces of advice Brennan gave was to take a step back and think of the big picture during the holidays:
“For individuals in recovery from an eating disorder, now is a great time to remind yourself that recovery is an ongoing process. Struggles at this time of the year are perfectly normal and does not mean that a complete relapse will occur.”
Remind yourself to take each day as it comes. Striving for perfection, particularly in your plans for the holidays, doesn’t help the healing process. Recognize what you’re going through is entirely normal. Be kind to yourself, particularly at this time of the year.
When you do over-indulge, Brennan stresses not to compensate for the lapse in your other meals. She also encourages patients at the Eating Recovery Center to return to their meal plans, not as a rulebook, but in terms of reminding themselves of what a healthy portion of food is. As Brennan puts it:
“Many people will comment that they are skipping a meal, perhaps breakfast, in anticipation for the large, heavy holiday meal in the afternoon. I suggest trying to enjoy the holiday meal throughout the day, instead of all at once, as a form of moderation. For example, it is not against the rules to have some of the dinner you ate last night for breakfast the next morning.
“Remind yourself that your body knows how to take care of food. One instance of overindulging does not mean you will return to your eating disorder. One overindulgence will not send you spinning out of control. It was just one instance, let it go and continue on. Furthermore, don’t try to skimp on the next day because of you overindulged the day before; eat what your normal intake would be.”