Magnificent as they are, the holidays can be stressful for anyone. But for the 30 million women and men in America who struggle with an eating disorder, the most wonderful time of the year can also be a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency, as Clark Griswold would say. I speak from experience: As someone who has battled anorexia and exercise addiction for well over a decade, that the extreme focus on food and eating, often accompanied by well-meaning but nonetheless insensitive comments, can be some tough shit.
For example, it’s not ideal when dear Aunt Carole won’t shut up about having to increase her crazy workouts to “work off all that ‘nog,” or how she just ordered a three-month supply of skinny tea to detox from the holidays and maybe you should too, or how she should really look into laxatives this time of year (the latter of which was actually said to me, if you can believe it 🙄), and you’re sitting there just trying to finish your pie without putting her face in it. These types of discussions can make staying on a recovery-oriented path even harder than it already is. So, Aunt Carole, take your skinny tea, rev up the RV, and hightail it back to Florida—please and thank you.
“When the holidays turn into something to ‘get through’ rather than something to look forward to and celebrate, something has gone terribly wrong,” says Carolyn Costin, MA, MEd, MFT, CEDS, FAED, founder of Monte Nido & Affiliates, a premiere eating disorder treatment center with locations across the United States. “For those who already struggle with food and body image, the holidays pose additional anxiety and pressure above what already exists during this season. The stress of the holidays, combined with the amount of food that’s involved, raises the stakes for anxiety and depression to take hold.”
I have always loved this time of year but when I had anorexia the holidays took on a whole new meaning.
Costin knows all too well—she has not only treated patients with eating disorders for over 30 years and become one of the most prominent eating disorder therapists in the country, but she also recovered from the disease herself. “I have always loved this time of year but when I had anorexia the holidays took on a whole new meaning,” she says. “I still loved everything about the holidays, but the food part terrified me for days leading up to and after the holidays were over.”
To make things a bit easier, Costin offers the following tips (pie in the face is, unfortunately, not one of them):
Find ways to think differently about what the holidays could mean to you.
Rather than becoming nervous and upset under the stress and expectations, see the holidays as a time to be creative and do things you like to do and wouldn’t ordinarily take the time for. Make homemade holiday cards and presents, give clothing to homeless shelters, get together for caroling, help a needy family who can’t afford a tree or gifts, or go spend some time in nature. All of these things will turn your attention to tasks that are in the true spirit of thankfulness and giving.
Avoid commenting on anyone’s weight or food intake, and plan how to respond if people comment on yours.
Come up with a few statements that you could say that are kind and would apply in most situations. Practice saying them.
Put things into perspective.
Issues of food and weight need to take their proper place. Even if you have problems in this area, eating, weight, and body shape are not the most important thing about who you are, nor do they define your precious life. Remember that a holiday party, and the holidays in general, only last a short period of time. Keep in mind the most important things that matter to you in your life.
Eating, weight and body shape are not the most important thing about who you are, nor do they define your precious life.
Balance is the key.
There are no bad foods, just bad eating behaviors. Eat in moderation and don’t deny yourself anything you really want. Avoid all or nothing and black and white thinking and behavior; it usually backfires. Plan for a time when you will want to eat something you think you shouldn’t. Don’t diet to prepare for the holidays—eat a balanced diet, which naturally fluctuates.
If you’re going to attend a party, eat well before going, and then enjoy some delicious treats at the party, too. Don’t restrict ahead of time to “save” up because there will be tempting food there.
Most importantly, if you eat more than planned, stop negative self-talk or judgment and talk to yourself like a friend or therapist would.
Accept it. Love yourself anyway and move on. Try the next thing. This is a learning and growing process.
A version of this article was originally published in December 2016.