Christmas holidays are supposed to be a magical time, filled with loved ones, laughter and sharing beautiful meals together…There are occasions to look forward to, people to see and things to celebrate. But for someone suffering or recovering from an eating disorder, Christmas can mean panic, fear and overwhelm.
First off, there’s the plethora of parties like the office luncheon and the Secret Santa parties. Then there’s the gift baskets full of food everywhere, left-over cake in the office kitchen and your well-meaning grandma who has baked you all your favorite childhood cookies. And there is also a lot of stress, a lot of busyness, a lot of un-self-care.
Over the years, I totally developed a personal holiday FOMO. While it seemed that everyone else was just going with the flow and couldn’t wait for the holiday season, I was stuck in my anxious head trying to figure out how I would get through weeks and weeks of being confronted with food, social obligations, and family.
I have come a long way since then and have learned a lot about what works for me and what doesn’t work for me when it comes to striking a healthy balance of enjoying the festive season while still taking care of myself. If you’re anxious about the holiday season, I really think it helps to go in with some tools that you’ve prepared and thought about beforehand. The tips I’m giving below are just my opinion based off of my personal experience, and I hope they will resonate with some of you.
Let’s create a scenario: you have a history with binge eating. It’s about one week away from the holidays. What can you do to prepare yourself?
- Get support – Think about who your support person is ahead of time. This could be a friend, boyfriend/husband or family member that you can privately whisk away for a chat when you need to rant. Or someone you can text. If you don’t have one person in mind, then join a Recovery Facebook group where you can seek support. Anyone that you know you can rely on in the moment.
- Be prepared for airport anxiety (if you’re traveling to go back home) – Airports are a recipe for binge eating. You’re alone, you’re usually anonymous, you have all this extra time to do nothing and you’re surrounded by a line up of food outlet . Plus there’s the anxiety around flying. Visualize it like this: anxiety can build up like a pressure pot and the way that it can let out sometimes is through food. My suggestion is to arrive early so that you have enough time to check in, get through security and not stress about missing your flight. I also suggest allowing yourself to have a full meal at the airport, either something you buy on the spot or bring with yourself. The thought behind this is to a) have something to do and b) to avoid snacking. Also: I used to buy all these fitness/fashion magazines at the airport and they would be a total trigger for me. Try and feed your brain with something soul-nourishing instead, like a good book or podcast. Just do something that will fill your brain with enjoyable content rather than something that’s shaming you.
- Know that being with family can be tough – For so many of us, our families of origin is where our disordered eating started. I’m not saying it’s our families fault, I’m just saying that the environment in itself can bring up old thought patterns and behaviors. Even if you’re completely recovered, when you get home you suddenly feel like that 15-year old girl again that was always dieting and wanted to loose weight. Be prepared for that. Be prepared for being hit with the urge to binge, without really knowing why. Know that it’s going to happen, and when it does, try to pull yourself away from the situation and watch your instincts with curiosity, rather than guilt and shame. Remember that it’s OK to have these feelings and it’s OK to let yourself feel them. Actually, it’s important to let yourself feel them. Because it’s when you tried to ignore them that you got yourself in trouble in the first place.
- You have changed, but your family may not have – Oftentimes we work on ourselves a lot, we invest a lot of time and effort into self-development, but when we get home the people around us don’t treat us like we have changed. They still see us the same you. It can be something small like” Oh Stef, are you sure you really want that second serving?” So, how do we navigate around that? When you change, everyone around you is going to try and fight that change really hard. This is not because they want to harm you or hold you back, but because humans in general don’t like change and will subconsciously try to fight it. Just keep reminding yourself of how far you’ve come and that you don’t have to be stuck in the ways that you were as a child.
- Come with a list of potential triggers – Do you know the saying “Insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.”? Whilst you can’t always control what triggers you (especially in family situations), you can anticipate it and prepare to react differently than in the past. It’s like knowing a movie line before it happens. When it does happen, you have anticipated it and are mentally prepared for it. If this resonates with you, put this post to the side and write this list now. Promise it will help!
- Don’t hurt yourself if you are angry at someone else – I am totally guilty of this one. I would go into the holidays with lots of expectations towards people, and if those weren’t met, my first impulse reaction was to go to the fridge and eat everything I could find to sooth my broken heart. Sometimes my way of getting back at someone for something they had said or done was to eat up all their favorite cookies or ice cream. I knew that they would realize, and that’s exactly what I wanted. But I was only hurting myself in the process. Instead….
- Have an SOS- tool kit handy – I like to envision my self-care techniques as a SOS-tool kit. What’s your tool kit? How are you going to soothe yourself when you are stressed, upset, angry, hurt or frustrated? How are you going to not engage in this feeling? I recommend all my clients to write a list of things they can do in the moment to take care of themselves. A safe purge, so to speak. Here’s a couple of my favorites:
- Get out of the house. Go for a walk or light jog around the block. Meditate in nature.
- Deep belly breathing (one hand on your heart, one heart on your belly) or dual nostral breathing
- Epsom salt baths (hot water is really good medicine and epsom salt is really soothing and stress-reducing)
- Having a transitional object that reminds you of home and makes you feel safe. For me that’s certain jewellry and my journal.
- Write a letter to the person that you are frustrated/angry with. Let it all out on paper and then rip it up.
- If you are going to exercise… awesome! But make sure it aligns with your goals — to spend time with your family, to feel good in your body, to find balance, and to be kind to yourself.
- Allow yourself to eat whatever you want – Don’t put any restrictions on yourself and know that you can eat whatever you want to eat. my going into big food situations with that mindset you are essentially disarming the battle and not giving the food as much power. You no longer have to be in a fight with yourself about what you should and should not eat. Also make an intention on how you want to eat that food. Engage with people that you are interested in while eating. Eat slow and chew a lot. Savor it and take in the moment. If you can do just this one thing, honestly it will help so much!
- Being too full can be a trigger – For a lot of us, being full is a trigger. The feeling of being full is shameful and uncomfortable, so you start eating more. In order to not get to that point, mindfulness and eating slow is key. I also think it helps to not show up to social occassions too hungry, because you run the risk of eating really quickly and then all of a sudden it hits you and you feel too full. So, already come slight satiated (maybe havae a small snack before) and take it slow. The worst thing you can do is to restrict/not eat anything before big meals!
- Avoid too much alcohol – Binge drinking is pretty much always a prelude to binge eating. It immediately brings you into an unconscious state which then does not allow you to have a choice around food. Know your limits!
- Be cautious about leftovers. Often it’s not the party that’s challenging, it’s the cleaning up afterward. Gosh, how many times have I found myself secretly eating any left overs I could find while pretending to “clean up” the kitchen?! Leftovers can be such a huge trigger for many people. My tip is to help out with something that doesn’t involve food. Out of sight, out of mind.
- Offer to bring/make a dish – I used to be so terrified about navigating through our Christmas eve dinner (fondue, aka melted cheese with a shit ton of bread dipped into it). But in the most recent years we’ve made Christmas meals that allowed me to bring some healthier options to the table. Even if it’s just saying “I’ll make the dessert this year.” and knowing that you can create something you will comfortable with, that’s a great step into the right direction.
- You don’t have to eat every festive dish in order to enjoy the holidays – I used to feel like I had to eat every single dish in order to fully “take advantage” of the holiday. Have the mentality that this is not the last time you can eat certain foods.
- Don’t use the impending New Year as an excuse to binge. No “I will lose 10 pounds” New Years resolutions this year. Each morning, when you wake up, begin anew by telling yourself, “today I will do my best to go toward health and wellness.” And each morning, set a mini goal for yourself.
If you binged, wake up and forgive yourself. This did NOT ruin everything and it doesn’t make you a bad person or anything less than who you are.
Even though it was only a one-day thing, it’s so easy to go down that slippery slope, especially during the festive season when there is one celebration after the other. So, make the intention to let go of what happened and start your day off right. Even though your body is probably uncomfortably full, make sure to have breakfast and take care of yourself to the best of your ability. Ask yourself what is going to make you feel like you again? And trust that you have the tools inside yourself to move forward.
We can enjoy the season, be grateful for it and know that it is going to be hard. It’s totally possible to experience conflicting emotions at once. Allow yourself to simply feel what you are feeling, without attaching too much judgment to it.