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5 Ways eating disorder survivors can cope with holiday stress

The holidays are stressful for everyone, but if you have an eating disorder it can be extra tough. Get some tips on how to cope with holiday stress and still stay on track with your recovery.

Sad woman at holiday table

Whether you have completely recovered from an eating disorder or are new to treatment, the upcoming holidays may be a source of stress for you. Maybe the thought of dealing with family members gets you upset or the thought of all that food is a little overwhelming.

Luckily, SheKnows has compiled some tips for dealing with those stressful situations that come up at holiday celebrations and get-togethers. We hope this advice helps you take control of your recovery and make the holidays a little brighter.

1Stick to your meal plan

“A key to success with managing holidays, particularly the first time after treatment, is planning,” says Dr. Steven Crawford, associate director of the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Maryland. When you’re going into a holiday like Thanksgiving, it’s important to prepare. That includes getting rid of the notion that you should restrict eating all day to make up for gorging yourself during the meal. Instead, stick to the meal plan that’s been working for you.

“Take time to put in structure that will support you in maintaining a recovery focus,” he adds. In other words, keeping structure is imperative.

2Build in support

It’s important to have a support system in place, even if you don’t have a family member at the event to help. Let a friend who understands know that you may be calling during the day for support, then go outside to get some air and vent if you need to. Even if no one at the event understands you or can be a sounding board, you can still draw support from others using your cell phone or email. The important thing is to use your support system if you need it.

3Set boundaries

Sometimes the food isn’t the cause of your stress — dealing with family members can be the trigger. Ask yourself what events you want most to go to and what you are obligated to attend. Can you skip any to lighten the load? What expectations do you have for the get-together? What coping mechanisms can you turn to if things get stressful? You also should think about potential triggers and coming up with responses so you don’t fall into old habits. If your aunt wants to berate you about your weight, you don’t have to sit there and listen. Instead, firmly tell her it’s not up for discussion, then excuse yourself.

4Understand your expectations

“Everyone gets caught up in expectations of the holiday and what the holiday is supposed to be, and the reality can be different,” Crawford notes. People with eating disorders can have a hard time letting go of holiday memories and attitudes you may have had about the holiday. Maybe missing loved ones who are no longer is a trigger, or being upset from previous holiday celebrations is causing the stress. However, you can make new memories and redefine what the holiday means to you — maybe this year, it just means celebrating that you are recovering from your disorder.

Rader Systems, which has treatment facilities in Oklahoma and California, recommends understanding internal expectations for the season, and following this exercise:

  1. Draw five columns on a blank piece of paper.
  2. Under the first column write down your first memory of the holiday.
  3. Under the second column write down one or two of your fondest memories from the holiday.
  4. Under the third column write down instances when you were practicing your eating disorder during the holidays.
  5. Under the fourth column list the ways you have spent the holidays in recovery.
  6. Under the final column write down your future goals for the holidays.
  7. For the final part of the exercise compare the columns and notice if there are any themes that run through your memories and goals.

5Remember, no holiday is perfect

Many of us had great holidays as kids, so it can be a disappointment when they are not as wonderful as adults. Or perhaps your holidays were horrible when you were younger and you’re looking to compensate for missing out.

“We all have ideal holiday images,” Crawford says. But it’s important for those with eating disorders — who likely have perfectionist tendencies — to remember that the day doesn’t have to be perfect. You can still get through the day while enjoying it.

In short, whatever holiday you celebrate, take time out to prepare for it mentally and physically. It may not go exactly how you hope, but you still have a lot to celebrate knowing that you are on the path to recovery.

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