Kristina Nunez, PsyD
How to Navigate the Holidays When You Have an Unhealthy Relationship with Food
Updated: Jan 10
For many people, the holidays are a joyous occasion filled with traditions, loved ones and food! While this one perspective of the holidays has become the norm in our society, there are a significant amount of people who have a vastly different experience.
For many individuals battling an eating disorder, a negative body image, or for those who have had an unhealthy relationship with food, the holidays are far from joyous and are instead filled with anxiety, distress, and fear.
If you or a loved one identifies as someone with any of the above challenges, you still have time to work with your treatment team to create a plan that helps you stay on track towards your recovery goals or help you manage some of the anxiety and distress that might get in the way of you enjoying the holidays.
Having worked with individuals with eating disorders, I have seen how helpful it is to develop a plan, following through on it and come out of the holidays stronger than their eating disorder voice. Having a plan gives you structure and tools to navigate any unexpected challenges that may arise.
If in the past you’ve had difficult holidays because of disordered thoughts, urges, or triggering relatives, the following suggestions are tools you can use to help you navigate them this year.
1. Create a realistic plan
Thinking about a realistic plan, may be the trickiest part of it all. If you see a dietitian regularly, it will be important to discuss with them what is realistic regarding your meal plan for the holidays. Some people may try to skip meals to “allow” themselves to eat more during holiday meals or to eat foods they usually restrict. This is not a realistic plan. Skipping meals will most likely negatively impact your mood and behaviors.
Making sure you stick to your meal plan and not skip any meals or snacks is the best way to stay on track to minimize any disordered thoughts, urges or behaviors. Most holidays are filled with an abundance of traditions and activities, it is important to reflect on the schedule for the day and plan out your meals and snacks accordingly, to make sure you are getting enough nutrients to keep you sustained throughout the day.
2. Include your support system
You do not have to navigate the holidays alone! Bring in your support system to help you throughout the day. Involving them in your plan is crucial for success. You will most likely experience higher levels of stress or anxiety and it may be difficult for you to keep track of your plan or even remember which coping skill to use during these moments. Scheduling check-ins throughout the day with someone you trust may be helpful for you to take time to stop and reflect on how you’re feeling and what you may be needing.
Another way your support system can help is by planning to sit next to people you feel safest with during holiday meals, or maybe texting someone you trust throughout day or during mealtimes. Having support close by may help give you the confidence or feelings of safety you need during mealtimes.
3. Coping skills
Reviewing and practicing effective coping skills ahead of the holidays is a necessary step when creating a plan. You most likely will have disorder thoughts or urges throughout the holidays and it will be important to know what skills to utilize in order to manage them. Saving a list of coping skills in your notes app on your phone or creating a notecard to keep in your pocket will be an easily accessible reminder of skills you can engage in; in the event you feel triggered or flooded with high levels of distress.
Typically, during those moments, it is really difficult to think logically or maybe your support system isn’t nearby to remind you to engage in a coping skill, therefore, having a list on hand is an easy way to remember what coping strategies you can engage in to ground yourself. Some helpful coping skills to utilize are deep breathing techniques, five minutes of alone time, listening to music, processing how you feel with someone you trust, checking the facts, reviewing affirmation cards, five senses technique or journaling.
4. Setting boundaries!!!
If you haven’t had time to practice, this is your cue to work on enhancing this skill with your therapist because you most likely will need it during the holidays. Sometimes people don’t say the right things because they aren’t aware of what is triggering to you. You cannot control the behaviors of others, however, you can control how you respond to them.
It isn't realistic to expect the people around you to know what topics of conversation are off limits if they aren't informed of them. Setting boundaries can be uncomfortable at first and with practice it will become easier. Your boundaries and needs are important and deserve to be respected.
5. Plan to decompress
Yay! You just navigated a really stressful and exhausting experience. It is important to plan how you will decompress after. Whether that’s watching a holiday movie, playing games with loved ones, scheduling alone time to journal or listen to music, or maybe scheduling a nap. Having a plan to decompress will help you focus on the task at hand instead of having unstructured time after meals, which is a vulnerable period where disordered thoughts and urges are likely to be more severe.
If you don’t feel comfortable being alone in your thoughts while you decompress, recruit a loved one or friend to engage in that activity with you. This will help you to stay in the here and now, creating memories with the people you care about, instead of being stuck in an anxious thought cycle about the food you ate or were exposed to.
Final takeaways: Remember the importance of creating a plan is to have structure and tools to help you stay focus on your goals. Whether those are recovery goals, goals to enjoy the holidays a little more than previous years and stress less about the food you're eating, or goals of being a support person for your loved one.
It is also important to keep in mind that you aren’t a perfect human and won’t get it completely right every time. During these moments, remember to have some self-compassion. You may have stressful moments and these moments are exactly what they are, small periods in time. You are capable of overcoming these stressful moments by re-grounding yourself back to the here and now and realigning yourself with the goals you set. You are more powerful than your eating disorder voice and you deserve to enjoy the holidays!