The holidays can be stressful for all of us—and with celebrations looking very different this year due to the pandemic, possibly even more so than usual. Even with gatherings taking place with household members only, via Zoom, or socially distanced and outdoors, though, Thanksgiving is still likely to be an exceptionally challenging time for many of the millions of people in recovery from an eating disorder (ED), especially if you are just beginning or early on in your recovery journey.
Navigating these situations—where everyone around you seems to be having a grand old time, while you feel like you’re struggling just to hold it together—can be overwhelming, isolating, and emotionally taxing. If you’re in that position right now, know that it’s OK to be having a hard time—and that experts do have some guidance and encouragement that might help make getting through it just a little bit easier.
Why Thanksgiving can be difficult for individuals in ED recovery
People recovering from an eating disorder, especially earlier on, generally have routines around what they eat and when, Erica Leon, M.S., R.D.N, C.D.N., nutrition therapist, certified eating disorder registered dietitian, and founder of Erica Leon Nutrition, tells SELF. “So having a big meal in the middle of the day that includes a lot of fear foods [foods that provoke anxiety] and is often served buffet-style can be very disruptive and challenging.”
Potentially triggering food and body talk steeped in fatphobia and disordered eating is so normalized around Thanksgiving—on social media and news feeds, and at the dinner table—that it’s hard to escape, Leon says. “Clients say the hardest thing is the comments from others talking about weight, breaking their diets, good food, bad food, guilt, indulgence.” I skipped breakfast so I can stuff myself. How many calories do you think are in this pie? I feel so fat, I’m going to work out for like three hours tomorrow. Let alone, relatives making boundary-crossing comments on your eating or body.
On top of that, “This Thanksgiving may also present new challenges because [of] COVID-19 concerns,” Carolina Guízar, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., founder of Eathority and cofounder of Latinx Health Collective, tells SELF. Tight-knit gatherings with household members only might be a relief for some folks, Leon says. For others, a small (or virtual) gathering might mean missing the physical presence of supportive friends and relatives, Guízar says—or feeling trapped with family members you don’t have a great relationship with.
Of course, ED recovery is extremely individualized, so your number one resource is still the specific treatment plan you have with your support team (your therapist and/or dietitian). “Every single person’s situation is different, and different issues are going to come up for them,” Leon says, depending on factors like your diagnosis, medical history, where you are in your recovery, family dynamics, and day-of circumstances. So, take the tips below as generalized reminders that you may find helpful on top of your current treatment plan, and keep in mind that they may not all apply to you.
Here are some tips that may help make Thanksgiving Day a little bit easier.
1. Remind yourself that it’s just one day.
“That might be the most important thing to remember: that Thanksgiving is actually only one day,” Leon says, a reality that’s easy to lose sight of with all the cultural hype surrounding the holiday. The fact is, “No matter what a person eats, no matter what happens, nothing bad is going to happen to you. It’s just one day,” Leon says.
2. Get a good night’s sleep and eat breakfast.
Basic but essential. Plan to nourish and rest your body the day before, get a good night’s sleep if you can, and eat breakfast the morning of. “This will give you much needed physical energy to be able to better handle challenging situations,” Guízar explains. (Stick with your formal eating plan if you are currently following one, Leon notes.)
3. Identify who your support person will be.
Knowing your safe person is key. “It can be a family member, a friend, someone who knows what you’re going through and that you can make a quick glance at or [pull aside] or reach out to if you’re struggling,” Leon says. If they are a friend or relative outside of your household who will not physically be there, Leon recommends having a plan with the person for them to be on stand-by via text or call.
4. Make a list of topics that are not OK to talk about.
Pre-establishing clear boundaries for yourself is helpful, so that when a triggering topic or comment comes up, you don’t have to make a decision in the moment about whether it’s OK with you or not. “Seriously, write down a list of the things you will not talk about,” Leon says. For instance, I will not talk about my eating. I will not talk about bodies. I will not talk about exercise.
5. Script out how you will respond if somebody crosses a boundary.
The next step is prepping how you will respond if someone violates one of your boundaries. Leon recommends writing down a couple of succinct statements you can use in case that happens, and practicing saying them aloud. A few examples: I’m working on eating in a way that’s good for my body. I am not talking about diets right now. Please do not comment on my body and eating. And be prepared to simply excuse yourself from the table (IRL or virtually) if you’re overwhelmed in the moment, Guízar says.
6. Make a list of safe topics to bring up.
It’s also totally OK if you don’t feel ready or able to verbalize a boundary. Think of a handful of subjects you can introduce if the conversation is entering no-go territory, like food or body talk. If things like politics and the pandemic are polarizing in your house (or Zoom room), Leon recommends choosing personal but neutral subjects that people will like talking about. For example, good times you had together (like pleasant childhood memories) or things you are looking forward to (like trips you want to take when it’s safe to do so). You can keep this list (along with your list of off-limits topics) in your phone or pocket.
7. Have a couple of coping tools for when you need a minute.
Decide beforehand on what strategies you will use to manage a moment that is emotionally charged or overwhelming. “Say, ‘If XYZ happens, I’m going to do this,’” Leon says. “What works for you?” If your toolkit is looking a little sparse, Guízar recommends trying a grounding technique for anxiety (some of which you can do sitting in your seat) or mindful breathing exercise (try one of these videos). Or maybe you need some alone time and distraction. Guízar suggests taking a 30-minute break to go for a walk, watch a funny show in another room, or text/FaceTime a friend.
8. Have some supportive resources ready to go on your phone.
To take even greater advantage of the device sitting in your pocket, you can cue up anything that might help make you laugh, calm down, or distract yourself in a tough moment. Leon suggests having relaxing music or guided meditations at the ready. Or, “Create a photo folder on your phone with your favorite quotes, memes, or animal videos,” Guízar says.