For many people, Thanksgiving is a welcomed celebration, a time to be with loved ones and a chance to reflect on all that they are grateful for. Unfortunately, the Thanksgiving holiday can also mean high levels of stress and anxiety, particularly for those who struggle with eating disorders and disordered eating. It takes some preparation, but with a little planning and support, the holidays don’t have to be so daunting. Here are 10 tips from eating disorder professionals to help you have an enjoyable and healthy holiday!
1. Keep Your Appointments – This is always a good rule. Around the holidays, however, it is often particularly tempting to cancel an inconvenient nutrition appointment or skip your weekly therapy session. Try to remember that during difficult or stressful times, it is best to stock up on the amount of support you have rather than to trim away at your normal therapy routine; going without the support you are used to, could make the holiday even more stressful than it needs to be.
2. Identify a Support Person - Ask someone ahead of time to be your backup at the holiday event. Your support person could help distract you from a triggering moment with relatives or help change the subject during an awkward dinner conversation about food or weight. Just make sure you discuss with them ahead of time exactly what would be helpful to you in specific situations.
3. Plan a Time-Out – Think ahead about how you will give yourself an immediate break from the hustle and bustle of a holiday gathering if you need it. Offer to take the host’s dog outside to play when no one else is paying attention to him (mutually beneficial!) or find other creative ways to carve out some quiet time and fresh air for yourself.
4. Don’t Leave Home Without Your Toolbox - If you’ve established coping skills that work when you’re feeling overwhelmed or having thoughts of acting on your eating disorder – be sure to pack a travel-friendly version! If writing in your journal or listening to a special playlist on your iPod helps you, then throw them in the suitcase! This will also help to maintain some normalcy during the hectic holiday schedule.
5. Visualize the Thanksgiving You Want – Before you reach your Thanksgiving destination, or before your own guests arrive, spend some time visualizing the day in a positive way and picturing yourself handling the stress and the meals in calm, healthy ways. It is much easier to get through the real situation if you’ve already “seen” yourself succeed at it before!
6. Focus on Gratitude – Stay focused on what is good about the holiday and on all the things you do have, instead of what you dislike about the holiday, or what you are without. Sometimes that simply means focusing on the breath in our bodies, the ability to walk, to see, to hear, to taste, to touch, or the roof over our heads. You might be surprised to see just how many things you are grateful for this holiday season! Try to keep those in your mind, even if things are not going so well around you.
7. Try Not To Pack Too Much In – Duringthe holidays there is often so much to do, so much we want to do, but too much of anything, even a GOOD thing, can have negative results both psychologically and physically. In the end, trying to do too much will leave you frazzled, and it will make everything less enjoyable. Look over your holiday plans. Are there things you really want to do? Keep those things. If there are things that are less important on the list or do not HAVE to get done – like the two page holiday letter you were planning to write – maybe you can leave it for next year.
8. Set Limits -If there is a relative or two that cause you stress, it’s okay to set limits on what you are and are not willing to do. This might be the year that you do not visit with them (see item #7) or the year you finally tell them ahead of time that it is NOT okay to discuss food or weight issues around you.
9. Set a Goal (that has nothing to do with your eating disorder!)- Anxiety about holiday meals can be all-consuming. To make sure that Thanksgiving doesn’t pass you by while your thoughts are on your meal plan or on blocking symptoms, try setting a goal for yourself that has nothing to do with food. Perhaps you want to make it a point to ask your grandmother about her favorite Thanksgiving memory or offer to read a bedtime story and tuck your nieces and nephews into bed. Working to meet your positive goal for the day will help to distract from the anxiety and it can also create a positive memory you can associate with Thanksgiving for years to come.
10. Don’t forget to breathe! - This may sound simple, but it is sound advice. Breathing affects the whole body. When you take a few seconds to breathe slowly and deeply, even in a stressful situation, you can actually produce a state of relaxation. Try the following:
• Sit as tall as possible with your feet flat on the floor, and try to take your mind off of the stressful situation or activities around you.
• Take a slow, deep breath in (your stomach should expand as it fills with air)while counting to three.
• Hold your breath for a count of three.
• Exhale slowly (your stomach should contract) while counting to three.
• Repeat this whole sequence three times.
Now check in with yourself. Are you feeling a little better? If so, return to the activity around you. If not, take a little more time out to repeat the process or try another one of the coping skills listed above.