5 Tips For Surviving The Holidays With An Eating Disorder

Close Up Top View Of Unrecognizable Young Woman And Man Passing Delicious Food Sitting At Festive Christmas Table During Holiday Family Frindly Party.


For years, when I would go home for Christmas, I would have the exact same conversation with my grandmother.

“Have you lost weight?” she would ask, jubilantly.

I almost never had lost any weight, to my knowledge, which made it an extra bizarre question. But I was prepared to answer the same way again and again: “I have not. And I’d rather my body not be up for discussion at all.” To which, she would chuckle, not quite grasping my boundary. And then she would let it go—until the next year.

As someone with an eating disorder history, the holidays, which should be joyful and exciting, can be awkward—and even destructive—as the same problems present themselves year after year: We’re expected to spend time with family members who can be jarring. We’re faced not only with an abundance of food, but also open judgments about how much (or how little) we eat. Our bodies are considered small-talk conversation starters, like the size of our waists are as banal as the fluctuating weather.

Even in a tumultuous sea of discomfort, sometimes all you need is one life preserver to bring you back to safety.

And while we can hold out hope that our loved ones take the time to learn about our experiences and to adjust their behavior accordingly, sometimes we need to choose to take care of ourselves instead.

So here are five questions to ask yourself to prepare for your next holiday get-together:

1. Do I Need To Attend This Event?

Trust me, I know how this question lands for many of you: “Not go to a family holiday party? I’d be ostracized for the rest of my life!” And I get it. People, and especially family, can be intense about tradition.

But you don’t have to subject yourself to any environment that could be detrimental to your health.

If your pre-holiday anxiety is running especially high (which could look like anything from crying spells to losing sleep) or you feel yourself on the edge of relapse, check in with yourself: Is making other people happy worth your discomfort?

Maybe skip it this year. Or maybe create a whole new tradition that feels more true to your values and needs—from volunteering to a friend-centered gathering to a self-care day. But know that other people’s expectations are not your responsibility.

2. Which Boundaries Can I Set Ahead Of Time?

When you’re in the moment and someone does or says something triggering, it can be hard to respond. Sometimes we’re even extra activated by it because we saw it coming from a mile away—of course Uncle Jimmy would say that!

Consider letting folks know what feels bad for you ahead of time.

It doesn’t have to feel demanding, like an emailed list of off-limit words and phrases, although it certainly can look like that. Maybe your relationship with your mother is the most painful because of how she talked about her diets growing up, so you focus on having one hard conversation with her about your needs. Maybe your one overarching boundary is folks not commenting on your body, so you make one large plea to the group, instead of several small ones.

Maybe your boundary is one that you have with yourself—for instance, that you’ll get up and take a quick bathroom break if and when someone does something painful. Or maybe your boundary is that if someone says x, you’ll respond with in the moment, such as, “What I choose to eat is no one’s business.”

But think through what you need to feel safe before you set foot in the environment, and practice setting boundaries by asking loved ones to heed your needs.

3. How Can I Self-Regulate?

We all have tools to help us feel calmer in situations that activate our nervous systems. For example, I know that I can be very reactive when I’m upset, so one of my tools is to request a breather before responding to an agitator.

Some people practice breathing techniques to center themselves. Some people carry lavender essential oil with them for its soothing properties. Others need to extricate themselves from a hostile environment—take a walk around the block, even—before they can handle frustration safely.

Knowing that the holidays can be a triggering time for you, go in with a sense of how you can calm yourself when necessary.

4. Who Can Be My Support System?

For me, the most useful tool in eating disorder recovery has been my community —people all over the world who are on similar life trajectories, who I’ve met online over the years, and loved ones IRL who are ready to be my ally.

Having someone at the table with you who can do everything from changing the subject when diet culture nonsense crops up to simply sharing an eye roll with you so you feel less alone can be incredibly helpful. This can be someone already invited to the event, such as a cousin, or you can ask to bring a guest with you.

But even if these people can’t physically be with you over the holidays, you can still keep them in your pocket—through phone-related social media apps and text messages.

Ask a few friends if you can be mutual support for one another over the holidays. That way, when you need to be talked through a difficult moment, or simply need to vent, you have a handful of go-to people you can ask.

And if you have access to Twitter, check out #THX4SUPPORT. A few years ago, I started this hashtag to help folks in eating disorder recovery get through Thanksgiving, and the National Eating Disorders Association has kept it going. Folks tweet out resources with the hashtag all day, and have been for years, so the tag’s backlog has plenty of solidarity and support that you can reference.

Even in a tumultuous sea of discomfort, sometimes all you need is one life preserver to bring you back to safety.

5. How Can I Reset And Recharge Afterward?

Preparing for a stressful environment in eating disorder recovery is important, as is having the tools to work through hard situations as they come up in real time. But a plan for aftercare—how to relax and rejuvenate after the fact—is equally important.

Do you need a day to yourself when you get home, settling back in to your daily life? Would it help to have something to look forward to, like a vent session over brunch with your best friends? Could a relaxing activity—like a massage, bubble bath, yoga class, or even a full night’s sleep—feel good for your nervous system?

Have a plan for how to take care of yourself when you return home. Give yourself space to separate from the bustle of the holidays, to come back to yourself, and to prepare for the year ahead.

Living with an eating disorder, either active or in recovery, isn’t easy—and the holiday season, especially, throws a lot of common triggers at you. But practicing the above will help build your skills in autonomy and resilience, getting you through the season and beyond.

Melissa A. Fabello, PhD is a feminist writer and educator whose work focuses on the politics of bodies and wellness. 

Printed with permission from YES! Magazine.