Here's How To Cope With The Holidays When You're Recovering From An Eating Disorder

The holidays already tend to be a stressful time of year for many people, but it can be especially challenging if you're recovering from an eating disorder. There's a strong emphasis on celebration through food, not to mention the inevitable triggers that can present themselves at family gatherings, like unsolicited comments about how much food you put on your buffet plate. It can feel like you're trying to stay afloat in a sea of overwhelming uncertainty, but the truth is, there are ways to cope with the holidays when you're in eating disorder recovery. The first thing you need to know is this: You're a lot stronger than you think, and you're not going to drown in that sea of uncertainty — no matter how much it feels like you might.

While having an eating disorder can, at times, feel incredibly isolating, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders states that about 30 million people of all ages and genders have an eating disorder in the U.S alone. At least 2.8 percent of the population will experience binge eating disorder, making it the most common form of the condition, as per the National Eating Disorders Association, followed by bulimia nervosa (1.5 percent) and anorexia nervosa (0.9 percent).

Moreover, eating disorders do not discriminate; in other words, they have "no 'look,'" says Crystal Savoy, MS, RD, LDN, a non-diet dietitian at Real Life Women's Health. "We often see an emaciated white female portrayed in the media," she tells Elite Daily in an email, "when the reality is, eating disorders affect people of all sizes, ethnicities, and genders."

That being said, no matter who you are, if you're choosing recovery — especially during the tricky time that is the holiday season — be proud of yourself. You're accomplishing an exceptionally hard feat, and I, for one, am tremendously proud of you.

But here's where things can get really challenging: It can be difficult for friends, family, and loved ones who have never struggled with an eating disorder to understand the severity of the condition, or why mashed potatoes, baked ziti, decadent desserts, and the like can provoke such intense and deep-seated anxiety for someone who's recovering from such a condition. "It can be hard for a friend or family member to know what is the 'right' thing to say, and most people have no education or training in eating disorders, so they don't understand the complexity and severity of the disorder," Savoy explains. "That's why it's important to reach out to your closest friends and family to let them know how you feel, even if they can't completely understand it."

Of course, that is certainly easier said than done, especially when friends and family, themselves, may unknowingly be immersed in diet culture. Still, according to Savoy, having a good support system in place is key when you're recovering from an eating disorder. Below, she and a few other experts break down how you can approach your loved ones about what you're going through, and how you can navigate the holiday season overall while you're in recovery.

Keep in mind, if you're already working with a professional to treat your eating disorder, it's best to discuss with them the right plan for you. Otherwise, here are a few suggestions for getting through the holidays while you're recovering from an eating disorder.

Talk About Your Concerns Before A Party/Event

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If you're nervous about a holiday party, and you have the ability to do so, Lindsay Ronga, a yoga instructor and recovery coach for the wellness program Outshining ED, recommends being open and honest ahead of time about what you're stressing over with trusted family members or friends who will be at the celebration. "Tell them it's hard to be present during a holiday that revolves around food," Ronga tells Elite Daily over email. "Ask if they can help guide the conversation away from food, exercising, dieting, or being ‘too full.’"

Chances are, your loved ones will understand where you're coming from and be there to help you steer the conversation in subtle ways whenever necessary, whether it's toward fun holiday traditions or cringey, hilarious family stories.

Have Support On Speed Dial

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"Around the holidays, plan check-ins with someone in your support network," says Sal Raichbach, PsyD, LCSW, director of clinical development at Ambrosia Treatment Center. "It keeps you accountable, and you can get support quickly by just picking up the phone."

Touch base with a specific person or group of people you trust, who can assure you that you can contact them whenever you're in a bind, Raichbach tells Elite Daily in an email. That way, he explains, you won’t feel like you’re bothering them by reaching out (and it gives you one less excuse to not pick up the phone when you need help).

"Tell them when and where you’re going," he suggests, "so they know the situation and will be expecting your call."

Try To Keep A Journal Nearby At All Times

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"Grab a notebook or journal, and write down all the reasons why recovery is important to you," Kate Clemmer, licensed clinical social worker and community outreach coordinator for The Center For Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, tells Elite Daily over email. You can even do this in a note on your phone if that's more convenient for you. Either way, the real goal is to ground yourself in a moment of stress and remind yourself why recovery is important to you, why it's something worth sticking with, no matter how hard it gets.

Additionally, says Clemmer, try making another list of people who support you in your recovery — like the go-to person/people you designated for the above suggestion — so that you'll know ASAP who to call when you feel panicked or need to get out of your own head.

Make Consistent Meals A Priority Leading Up To A Celebration

According to Gina Keatley, a certified dietitian-nutritionist working in New York City, it's important to normalize the idea of eating regular meals as much as possible, as it will "help with the triggers some ED patients have," she tells Elite Daily in an email.

Triggers can be complicated to define, but as per the Eating Disorders Glossary from the organization Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders, they're typically used to "describe things that are upsetting and lead to eating disorder behaviors," which can include "specific foods, situations, and interactions," as well as anything that might lead to a particularly troubling emotional state, like an insensitive comment from a loved one, or even a discussion of someone's body shape.

Keatley tells Elite Daily that eating regular meals can not only help you avoid and/or feel stronger in the presence of these triggers, it can also keep your blood sugar levels balanced, which may help to minimize your overall anxiety.

Plus, Savoy adds, eating consistent meals ensures you're not restricting yourself. "Restriction leads to the chaotic feelings around food and increases the likelihood of binging," she tells Elite Daily. "Of course if you go into a room full of food starving, you are going to go to town on said food. We are human; this is a completely normal response, and one that we can prevent by eating consistently, holiday or not."

Give Yourself Permission To Eat All Foods

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When you're recovering from an eating disorder, Savoy explains, it's important to give yourself unconditional permission to eat the foods you want to eat, not just around the holidays, but every day.

And the thing about holiday eating, specifically, she points out, is that you're probably coming across delicacies you really only get to savor during this particular time of year, like your long-distance BFF's incredible s'mores pie, or your aunt's sugar cookies. "Have some and enjoy them," Savoy says. "And bring some Tupperware for leftovers."

Ultimately, Savoy explains, the goal is to take the "good" and "bad" labels away from food, because once you do that, she says, it gives you the chance to simply ask yourself, Do I like this food? "If the answer is yes," she says, "eat it."

At The Same Time, Remember That It's OK To Say No

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Just as you can, and should, give yourself permission to eat the foods you want to eat, Libby Parker, MS, registered dietitian and owner of Not Your Average Nutritionist, LLC, says you can also say no when you want to say no.

"You don't have to stuff yourself just because someone 'made it just for you,' or 'made it with love,'" Parker tells Elite Daily. "You are allowed to pass on foods you don't like or are not hungry for."

Give Yourself More Credit

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Try not to be too hard on yourself, says Channing Marinari, licensed mental health counselor at Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches. Talk to yourself kindly and positively, she suggests, no matter what happens. "Use statements such as 'being scared in recovery is normal,' or 'letting myself live flexibly with foods lets me experience a full life,'" Marinari tells Elite Daily. If it helps, maybe you could even jot these positive statements down in your journal or in a note on your phone.

The fact of the matter is, you're doing the best that you can, and that in itself is something to be proud of.

Accept That There May Be Triggering Conversations, And Prepare

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In general, says Brie Shelly, MS, CRC, licensed mental health counselor at Activate Wellness Solutions, it's important to ask yourself which topics of conversation might trigger negative feelings or thoughts for you. Additionally, she tells Elite Daily, consider whether a particular person or environment you'll be around during the holidays might present some challenges.

For example, Shelly explains, do comments about weight or certain restrictive diets make you feel like curling up into a ball with a pair of noise-cancelling headphones? Plan ahead for these inevitably tough moments, she suggests, by thinking of ways you can redirect a conversation if/when you hear negative comments about food or people's bodies. According to Shelly, this can sometimes be as simple as coming to an event prepared with questions you can ask other people about themselves. "Oftentimes, people love talking about their lives, so let them," she points out.

Or, Shelly adds, you could change the subject of a conversation to something you personally feel comfortable chatting about, like a weird news story you read recently, that cool new documentary you watched, or even a new podcast you've started listening to.

Take The Focus Off The Food

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Ultimately, the holidays are not about the food. "The holidays are really about spending quality time with people you love," Neeru Bakshi, MD, FAPA, CEDMD, medical director at Eating Recovery Center, tells Elite Daily. "That said, take the focus off food, and place it on connecting with family and friends."

For instance, try to plan at least one holiday gathering or event that doesn't really emphasize or even involve food, like a gift swap, ice skating, a movie date — really, Bakshi says, anything that you know you and your loved ones will enjoy, and that will strengthen your relationships with these people, will serve as something you can genuinely look forward to, rather than stress about.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a Helpline volunteer here.