By Elisha Contner Wilkins
Navigating the holiday season can create challenges for individuals struggling with or recovering from an eating disorder. It’s completely normal for individuals to face obstacles during the holiday season, but ongoing support can make all the difference in maintaining their eating disorder recovery.
As we enter this holiday season, ensuring that my patients and their families have access to the care they need is one of my top priorities. Recovery is always possible, even during challenging times, and the following strategies and resources can help you and your family navigate this year’s unusual holiday season.
For many individuals on the journey to recovery, the holidays are a challenging time of the year—and this holiday season is filled with its own unique challenges.
Across cultures, food is often the centerpiece of holiday celebrations, which can make the holidays a potentially difficult time for individuals navigating recovery from an eating disorder. Often there is a great deal of discomfort and uncertainty around what meals are being prepared, when they are being served, and which family members or friends are going to be present.
These are all very normal concerns that would arise during a typical holiday season. However, this year, the holidays will be anything but typical. Holiday traditions will look different this year and possibly for years to come as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many uncertainties remain, and it can stir a number of competing emotions that can make it harder to stay on the recovery path.
The holidays are going to look different this year—these skills and strategies can make it easier to overcome challenges and maintain your recovery.
If there’s a silver lining to all of the different emotions the holiday season brings to light, it’s that individuals with eating disorders and those on the path to recovery can plan ahead. This year has brought a plethora of resources to those working to maintain their recovery that can be utilized this holiday season. Unlike the unexpected challenges that can arise during the recovery journey, we can plan for the various scenarios that may arise during the holidays and prepare an arsenal of strategies to handle them.
For individuals struggling with an eating disorder, the following skills and strategies can make it easier to maintain recovery during the holiday season:
- Get back to basics. Focusing on the foundations of your recovery plan can keep you on the right track, even when the stress of the season peaks. Adhere to your meal plan and make sure that your nutritional needs are being met. Most importantly, take it one day at a time.
- Create routines. The holidays can lack structure due to fewer work and school demands. Before you unplug for the season, be sure to have a plan for building routines into your holiday vacation. It’s never too early to start having conversations with loved ones about how you can create structure at home or afar.
- Practice gratitude. Whether you celebrate during the season or not, gratitude is an important practice to incorporate into your recovery all year long. Rather than focusing on what’s going wrong in the world, gratitude enables us to focus our attention on the things that are going well. When you experience lows during the holidays, try this: Write down three things that you are grateful for in a gratitude journal. Just this simple act can change the way that we think and in turn, change the way that we feel.
- Try something new. In the past, holiday traditions may have been centered around meals and gift-giving, but consider taking the opportunity to reframe your traditions around something more important—being grateful for the time you spend together. Try to think of activities you and your loved ones can engage in that don’t require a menu such as watching holiday movies, going for walks or to the park, playing board games, and just enjoying each other’s company.
- Prioritize based on your values. It’s important to prioritize your needs and wants this holiday season based on what is important to you. If something doesn’t fit with your values, it’s okay to say “no.” Sometimes we even have to say “no” to something to make adequate time for what we have already committed to and that’s okay. Keep it simple and make time for what is truly important to you.
Is your loved one navigating an eating disorder? Here’s how you can support recovery this season.
It isn’t uncommon for individuals with eating disorders to work harder to maintain their recovery as the seasons change—and that can be particularly true during the fall and winter holiday season. However, communities of support can make the difference between recovery and relapse, especially during the holidays.
As a clinician with over two decades of experience helping individuals with eating disorders and their families, I can tell you that you are not alone — these conversations aren’t easy for anyone to initiate. Remember that the support you offer is invaluable, although it may change depending on your loved one’s age and your relationship to them. Whether you are the parent of a child with an eating disorder, or you are offering support to a significant other who is struggling with an eating disorder, the following tips can make the holiday season a little brighter for you, your loved one and your family:
- Plan ahead. Don’t wait for the holidays to arrive before you put together a plan to support your loved one this season. Start having conversations now about what the holidays are going to look like and how you can support their recovery during this challenging time.
- Listen with empathy. Listening to your loved one is important. Listening with empathy can be transformative. For individuals with eating disorders, having their experiences and emotions validated by the people they love and trust the most can be an important conduit to maintaining recovery during challenging times.
- Seek out support. Being the caregiver of an individual with an eating disorder can be difficult at the best of times. During an unprecedented and stressful holiday season, that difficulty could feel amplified. Be sure to seek out a support network for yourself. The standard advice when flying on a plane is true here, too—you have to make sure you’ve taken care of yourself before you can take care of someone else.
The holidays can be hard, but together we will get through this. Reach out today to find out how Veritas can help you or a loved one navigate these challenging times and discover lasting recovery.
About the Author
Elisha Contner Wilkins is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Eating Disorders Specialist – Supervisor. She has over 20 years of experience working with children, adolescents, adults, and families. She has focused much of her career on exclusively working with eating disorders in private practice and higher levels of care. She has been instrumental in developing eating disorder programs at various levels of care, including Veritas Collaborative’s Child, Adolescent & Adult Center in Richmond, Virginia.