Holiday Tips for People With Eating Disorders

By Nina Puro 12/24/12

This season is a challenge. With the help of an expert on eating disorders, The Fix offers five helpful suggestions.

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For some, holiday dining is more scary than
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Trying to cope with an eating disorder in the holidays can feel overwhelming. “The holiday season is frequently one of the most stressful times of year for people who are working towards recovering from their eating disorder," Zoe Landers, MSW, LCSW, a New York City therapist specializing in eating disorders and trauma, tells The Fix. "Holiday gatherings frequently focus around food and this presents unique challenges.” Here are five ideas for helping you get through this rocky time of year:

  • Have a plan (but be flexible). Sometimes knowing in advance what food will be served at a specific gathering can help you to follow a "safe" meal plan. But many also find that anticipation of specific foods can generate added anxiety. So prepare for events in advance—with the help of your treatment team, if possible—and try to assess what you're ready for at this stage in your recovery. It often takes time to be able to be flexible about food choices, so don't rush yourself. Jessica, 32, a recovering anorexic from Minneapolis, suggests, "If possible, bring something that you’re OK with eating to share."


  • Ask nice people for what you need, and redirect the others. Many don’t know how to react to people with eating disorders, and body comments from family members are common. Even compliments, like “You look so healthy!” are often a trigger. Act in advance: tell people how they can be helpful, and firmly express when a comment rubs you the wrong way. When Great-Aunt Gertrude jealously asks, “How’d you get so skinny?” the response she expects certainly isn’t “Years of vomiting up anything I eat.” But this isn't the only way to get the message across; effective communication strategies will vary depending on the individual and context. Practice changing the subject, and prepare to steer conversations away from food and weight. As Landers says, “Noting which techniques are most useful in response to which situations can help us map out how to stay emotionally safe.”


  • Prepare a 911 card. This is modified from an exercise that's used at a number of treatment center for eating disorders. It offers a physical representation of who to call, which helps when temptation is immediate, but support isn't. On one side of a wallet-sized card, write three to five support contacts and their phone numbers. Landers also suggests “listing specific people for specific issues.” On the other side, write three to five reasons you want to recover and/or coping skills. Laminate it and keep it with you. Make a commitment to yourself before acting on a behavior to text or call at least one person, even for two minutes, and to employ at least one skill, even for two minutes. This could prevent a spiral.


  • Carry a talisman or symbol. In 12-step culture, chips are handed out as tangible representations of commitment to recovery. For people with eating disorders, carrying a healthy visual reminder of recovery and support can also ward off internal chaos in difficult moments. Elizabeth, 27, a recovering bulimic from Brooklyn, tells us, “To this day, I wear a turquoise ring on my hand that was my grandmother’s. I’d only take it off to purge. And every time I did, I felt like I was killing someone. That would remind me that, um, I was. Seeing it in my mind's eye would sometimes deter me.” Try keeping something with you—like a smooth stone, or a note in your wallet—that’s meaningful and affirming. Even simply "playing with rings or pressing lightly against the back of an earring to help bring focus back to the present moment," can help ground you, says Landers.


  • Check in, relax and breathe. “Our thoughts are very powerful," says Landers. "Providing reassurance, using compassionate, encouraging and neutral language, can make a significant difference in how we get through a stressful situation. Self talk is incredibly important: try coaching yourself through a stressful moment as though you were talking to your best friend or a child.” Check in with yourself, asking how you’re feeling and what you need. She also suggests “reminding oneself of why we want to recover in the morning, before an event or throughout the day can be helpful in maintaining motivation.” It's also important to “not give more attention to perceived failures or slips than to one's successes,” she says. At the end of the day, many of her clients have found that “affirmations or taking the time to identify three things for which one is grateful daily has impacted moods positively and helped people feel more capable.” Finally, always remember to take a pause before reacting to a difficult situation; don't forget to breathe.
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Nina Puro is a regular contributor to The Fix. Her poetry and essays have appeared in publications such as Third CoastPleiades and Harper Palate. You can find Nina on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.