5 Tips for Navigating the Holiday Season When in Recovery From a Restrictive Eating Disorder
Written by Vanessa Osmer, MA, LCPC, NCC
When it comes to eating disorder recovery, the holiday season can be a significant stressor. I work with several of my clients in recovery on developing an action plan for their holiday experience, specifically their holiday gatherings that may be triggering for them. When my clients and I discuss planning, we usually write a plan that can be reviewed when emotions are more intense or uncomfortable. Unfortunately, people struggle with accessing these plans from their memory when emotions are high, so I always encourage my clients to write them down or put them in the note section of their phones for easy access.
When clients have plans on how to deal with difficult experiences, they tend to feel more confident in their ability to navigate those stressors. I aim to empower my clients to take control of their lives so they can learn to enjoy the holiday season again.
I will share five tips I use with clients for navigating the holiday season when recovering from a restrictive eating disorder.
Tip 1: Make a plan regarding confronting fear foods
Fear foods may still be tough to consume depending on where a person is in their recovery process. I encourage my clients to consider the types of foods that will likely be served at their holiday gatherings. Together we work on preparing to come in contact with those foods and discuss how to manage each of those contacts as they present. Suppose a client is far enough in recovery and is working on their exposures to fear foods. In that case, we may even work on consuming those foods together in sessions to gather evidence to violate their eating disorder beliefs and to increase their acceptance of uncomfortable emotions.
Tip 2: Know your boundaries and hold them
My clients in recovery are often encouraged to develop their own healthy boundaries that they can hold to while at gatherings. Boundaries are different for everyone and personal, so I usually spend some time exploring the types of boundaries my clients want to set with others surrounding body talk, diet talk, and comments about appearance. Additionally, I encouraged my clients to identify their food action plan so they can be clear in the feedback they may give others if people start to push food that the client is not yet ready to approach. Furthermore, I work with my clients on assertive communication to confidently communicate those boundaries effectively and respectfully.
Tip 3: Identify your support people
I encourage all my clients in recovery to identify 1-3 support people they can turn to if they become too overwhelmed during the holiday festivities. Of course, I prepare my clients to feel some distress during their holiday festivities, but in the event they become overly activated, it is essential that they have supports available who can assist with emotional regulation. Therefore, I plan with my clients to reach out to their support system before engaging in any eating disorder behaviors. Having a support system to help distract them and direct them toward coping strategies can make a big difference for people in recovery. Likewise, having someone who can acknowledge how well you navigated the holiday can be reinforcing.
Tip 4: Self-care, self-compassion, and mindfulness
When my clients in recovery from an eating disorder are preparing for the holiday season, I always remind them of the importance of self-care and self-compassion. The truth is all eating disorders encourage negative self-talk and comparisons. So I work with my clients on mindfulness to help reduce comparisons and assist clients with reducing negative evaluations of themselves, others, and even food. I encourage clients to practice listening to their body needs, such as rest and fueling their body when it communicates hunger. I also teach clients to practice compassion and kindness when they get off track. I ask clients to consider a dialog they would use with the people they love most and to echo those communications with themselves.
Tip 5: Practice gratitude and keep vulnerabilities to the emotional mind low
It can be hard to focus on gratitude. However, the holiday season is a good time for people to remember everything they have to be grateful for. The truth is our brain is hardwired to focus on danger and stressors. Biologically, it makes sense to focus on these because our species' survival depends on our abilities to identify and avoid risk. I teach my clients to make room for intentional gratitude. I encourage them to protect time to reflect on what they feel grateful for and also to turn their appreciation toward their body. When clients learn to show their body gratitude, they are significantly more likely to listen to their bodies' messages and comply.
Finally, I work with my clients on keeping their vulnerabilities to their emotional minds low. This means I encourage them to get a healthy amount of sleep, to take any prescribed medications or medically recommended supplements as prescribed or recommended, and to resist the use of alcohol or drugs. Most people don't realize how impactful and helpful a good night's rest can be for their ability to tolerate stressful situations.
Navigating the holiday season while in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder can be challenging, but the truth is nothing worth doing is ever easy. I usually remind my clients that the determination that kept them in the disorder is the exact ingredient needed to get out of it. If you are struggling with navigating the holiday or life in general due to an unhealthy relationship with food or your body, I invite you to look into evidence-based treatment providers in your geographical location to get started on your recovery process.