How to face the holidays when you suffer from an eating disorder
Every year, more awareness is drawn to the challenging aspects of the holiday season, particularly when it comes to mental health. The perception that we should be happy can turn into pressure to put on a facade, which can make whatever issue you’re dealing with more difficult to manage.
For example, stress during the holidays can exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety that individuals already suffer from. For others, the desire to offer their families an experience beyond what they can afford leads to financial strain and rates of arguments, abuse, and divorce rise during this period.
The general trend is that silence around the topics of mental health during the holiday season appears to fuel and amplify underlying conditions or unhealthy habits that already exist. This can be particularly difficult when the mental health issue concerns emotional responses to food.
Food and the holidays
The holiday season is synonymous with family, relaxation, good cheer – and plenty of food. To a certain extent, overeating during the holidays is normal behavior. Having time off with the people you are closest to should be celebrated.
But, the question is, how much is too much?
Wade Morris, an adjunct psychology professor at Saint Leo says, "People overeat during the holidays for a variety of reasons that can be boiled down to emotions and stress, nutritional deficiencies and perception."
According to the National Library of Medicine, over half of annual body weight gain takes place from mid-November to mid-January in obese adults. Surprisingly, overeating continues after Christmas celebrations, with a Washington Post article from 2015 even claiming that calorie intake is highest in the New Year.
This would make sense as the third Monday in January is said to be the most depressing day of the year. Although the actual science behind this claim does not stand up to scrutiny, there’s an anecdotal truth to the statement which many of us can relate to.
If you’re one of the 2.8 million people who do or will suffer from an eating disorder in the US, what can you do to better manage the holidays?
Plan for the upcoming season
The old saying “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” comes to mind in this context. With more free time and increased access to food, you are naturally exposing yourself to a higher number of trigger points. When added to a sense of being on vacation, an individual’s ability to control their urges can appear almost impossible to manage.
A study from Yale School of Medicine, found that the majority of people who suffer from an eating disorder don’t seek help. The study claims that less than 30% of sufferers seek a counselor or psychologist and not even 20% take medication to alleviate their symptoms.
This has to be the first step for anyone suffering from an eating disorder – and it should ideally happen before the holiday season. Trying to set up a new routine during a time when most individuals take steps back from their professional responsibilities is challenging.
Instead, reach out to a professional as soon as possible to develop a plan for the holidays, including regular check-ins.
Communicate your boundaries
The reason many people don’t reach out to professionals is because eating disorders want you to remain silent. In fact, the American Psychological Association even went so far as to call it as a “silent epidemic”.
Why is this? Well, one reason is because the societal pressures that accompany ideas of food intake or beauty standards mean that many sufferers feel a sense of shame with their disorder.
This shame reinforces the tendency towards silence, making it almost impossible for them to confront or control their problem. Unless they speak about it.
Talking needs to take place at every level. The more open you are, the easier it is to address. If you find the idea difficult, begin with a professional who you know will have your best interests at heart. With them, you can develop strategies for communication with other people.
This doesn’t always mean you have to make yourself vulnerable in situations where you don’t feel entirely comfortable. Communicating your boundaries could be as simple as, “This looks delicious, but I think I’ll save dessert for another time” – and sticking to that decision. If you sense this being challenging, you can also develop an exit strategy to take yourself out of the situation.
What’s important is to find an approach that works for you and the best way to develop your strategy is by speaking with a professional.
Prioritize holiday activities that don’t involve food
Many holiday activities are built around food and, to a certain extent, that is unavoidable. However, there is also a tendency to snack more than at other times of the year.
A NY Post article found that survey respondents claimed they would eat 26 cookies, 25 pieces of candy or chocolate, and 12 slices of pie on average over the holiday season. This is generally on top of the larger meals that we could expect to consume at specific celebrations.
For people suffering from an eating disorder, controlling snacking can often be more difficult than not eating too much at set meals. Combatting this impulse is not easy and will require a multi-strategic approach.
That said, one of the most powerful motivators of snacking is, quite simply, boredom. By taking the time to plan your days, you can remove or limit the boredom you feel and reduce the temptation as a result. Some of this could be built into your daily habits – whether going for a walk, meditating, or other self-care routines.
Beyond this, consider embracing holiday activities such as building snowmen (weather permitting), playing games, or doing puzzles. Having just three or four set activities built into your day can make a huge difference when it comes to snacking.
Limit or eliminate your intake of drugs or alcohol
People have a strained relationship with alcohol in particular during the holiday season. According to somewhat unsurprising UCLA survey results, there is a spike in alcohol consumption during the holidays.
While there is nothing wrong with a moderate glass or two during a celebration, excessive consumption can have a lot of knock-on effects. For individuals suffering from eating disorders – even if they don’t have a problem with alcohol – overindulging in beverages can affect their ability to manage their illness.
Alcohol lowers inhibitions and can test our resolve, making it more difficult to stick to their plan. As with food, it’s important to have a specific idea before any social situation of how much you want to drink and stick to it. And remember, if you don’t think you will be able to stick to one or two, the recommendation is to not have any at all.
Plan beyond the holiday season
Finally, remember that, while the holiday season may be the most difficult time, your mental health should be a priority all year round. The best way to ensure you tackle eating disorders head on is to develop a consistent routine based in self-care – and with the support of a professional.
If you would like access to professional advice or care, please get in touch with us at MHAI.
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