For some, the holidays are a happy time of year consisting of fun-filled parties and special family meals, where old recipes are savoured.  A time where relatives and friends catch up, laughs are had, and new memories are made.

On the other hand, for people who are struggling with an eating disorder, just hearing the first tinkle of a holiday bell or another ritual sound can send them reeling in crushing feelings of fear, shame, guilt, hopelessness and/or sadness, just to name a few.

What can people who struggle with an eating disorder do to manage the holidays and get through to the other side?  The following are a few ideas that may help you or a loved one survive (literally and figuratively).

Look at the calendar and plan ahead. Avoid overscheduling yourself.  Be honest and realistic about what you can handle. The people who love you do not want you to do something that will end up causing you harm, be it emotional or physical.

If you haven’t already done so, consider sharing your fears about the holidays with a family member or friend. Look for a support group in your area that runs during the holidays.  Find out what online support is available and plan on using it. 

Do not skip meals. Of course, I know that this is far easier said than done, otherwise you wouldn’t be struggling with an eating disorder or even disordered eating for that matter.  But honestly, skipping a meal to make up for an upcoming holiday feast will backfire, 100% of the time.

Rain or Shine – get outside! Go for a walk in the mountains or by the ocean, and consider bringing a friend. Walk through the lanes behind your house or meander streets in your neighbourhood. Or, just sit in the park and watch the squirrels.

Create and escape. Write in a journal, draw or even scribble. Consider investing in an adult colouring book t, add a set of colouring pencils and you’re halfway there.

Self-care: Take a long shower or a hot bath, light some candles, lay on your bed and listen to your breathing, read a good book, sit by the Christmas tree with a warm cup of tea, listen to music, paint your nails (or don’t, if you’re like me, because you’ll get the nail polish everywhere and it will just make you feel crazy), knit or try rainbow loom.

Mealtimes — Ugh. There’s no easy answer here. What I am going to say next might make you want to scroll off this page, but here goes… consider having a trusted family member or friend make you a plate from the feast options. Having someone else manage the food for you might reduce the panic (and maybe even guilt) that so often comes up when there are too many options. Yes, I know you’re thinking “this woman is nuts.” That you like (nope, you love) the control of knowing what and how much you’re adding to your plate, but if you’re really quiet, you just might hear that tiny voice (your voice) that says this might be a good idea. Have them sit beside you and quietly support you. A knowing glance and reassurance can provide the comfort that you might need to get through.

Plan for distractions after the meal. Play a board game or watch a movie.

Remember: people will make mindless comments about weight (yours, theirs, or someone else’s). They’ll comment on the food in general, on their food, your food, on the size of their pants, on the size of your pants, or how tight their belt feels. It’s unavoidable. And yes, it’s super triggering. So, share your frustrations with someone you feel will understand (see #2 for options). Whatever you do, don’t avoid your emotions, because they will pop up somewhere else when you least expect it, and at the worst possible moment.

If you feel overwhelmed, take a break from the festivities. The holidays are not a race; we need you to get out alive.I’m adding one more for good luck: Focus on the fact that the holidays are a temporary situation. They will come and they will go, and then you can get back to the tough business of recovery. Or at least, that’s what I hope you’ll be up to, because recovery is worth it and so are you.

About the author

CaraLynne McLean is a Registered Clinical Counsellor who runs a private practice based in North Vancouver specializing in the treatment and prevention of eating disorders.