Eating Disorders & Thanksgiving: Our First Blog
Welcome to our first official EBHA blog post! We are SO excited and appreciative that you have chosen to join us! I almost titled this blog post “How to Survive Thanksgiving with an Eating Disorder” but I quickly realized that giving it that title would communicate that Thanksgiving is a life-or-death event. We all know that’s not true, even though it may feel like that for some of us, particularly those who struggle with eating and body image concerns or for those who have tumultuous relationships or family conflicts.
The truth is—sometimes our brains think that there is a life-or-death situation coming up. Or that whatever the situation may be, we will not be able to handle it or our strong emotions. Our bodies and thoughts react as if it’s true even though in reality it’s likely “just” a VERY uncomfortable situation. We then respond to and cope in ways that lead to any kind of solace and comfort—often in ways that are not helpful to us long term.
Thanksgiving & Eating Disorder Challenges
Thanksgiving is a holiday of reflection and appreciation for where we have been and where we want to go. We often do this while celebrating with a glorious feast among our closest friends and family. For many, this is a time filled with joy, celebration, and family. However, for about 30 million others, this can be a battle not yet won.
Thanksgiving and eating disorders seem conflicting. The impending feeling of doom that the feast may bring can torment not only your mental state but fuel a monster that may have laid dormant previously. Maybe you are struggling with your body or perhaps this is the first (or many) Thanksgivings without a loved one. Maybe you are at a party with a lot of people and that makes you worried about what others will see. Or maybe you are alone in your apartment or house feeling immense loneliness. Just know that you are not alone in your struggle.
Food, Celebration & Coping
Many of us learn how to manage difficult situations through trial and error, and sometimes these are not the most functional or healthy ways to cope. You might either avoid the situation (and food) at the table. Or you might over-focus your efforts on eating comfort foods to zone out. This often leads to more uncomfortable physical (painful, bloated stomach) and emotional (insert GUILT and SHAME) consequences.
Note: enjoying food when celebrating is a natural, normal part of being a human being. We should not feel guilt or shame for doing so. Every society has a history of celebrating with food. But, when we approach a celebration with the intent of avoidance or numbing, THAT is what leads to more stress, anxiety, and struggle.
Tips for Those with Eating Disorders on Thanksgiving
If you know someone who struggles, you can see how holidays can impact their mental health. The battle is difficult but can be managed into a victory, given the right resources. Below we have curated a checklist of ways to prepare those that might be terrified by the thought of Thanksgiving. So, if you are needing some tips on how to approach this year’s Thanksgiving, you are in the right place! We hope the tips below will help you prepare, tolerate, and possibly lead to a more pleasant experience this year at the table.
CREATE A PLAN
If you think that the day could be difficult and to aid in any anxiety that you might feel, it could be helpful to create a plan. This could be something that your therapist may be able to assist you with, or if you feel comfortable enough, go ahead and work on it alone! It doesn’t necessarily need to be detailed, but if that helps, try an hour-by-hour schedule. Ask your family or friends what they are serving, what they will be doing, when is dinner? Try even writing down questions that may hold some anxiety for you, and get them answered. Whatever plan allows you more mental ease might be the right solution for you. Plan, but don’t worry and stress if the plan doesn’t go the way you expected. Life is unpredictable, and if something gets in the way of what you planned, do the best that you can.
USE YOUR SUPPORTS
Once you have a plan of action, identify your support system. It could be a parent, sibling, a friend, or someone that you find to be beneficial in times of stress or anxiety. If you feel like you need a little help on this day, lean on them for help. No one expects us to get through our struggles alone. They are there to stand by your side and support you no matter what, so take advantage of that! Let them know that diet talk or comments about how much food they ate won’t be helpful, and to act as a buffer if that is occurring.
TAKE TIME TO GROUND YOURSELF
Thanksgiving is a hectic holiday. From personal experience, it is typically me and family members running around preparing the feast, feeling rushed, putting last minutes decorations on the table, forgetting things, and just straight mayhem. Know that it is okay to take time for yourself. If you feel overwhelmed, find a quiet place to sit and reflect. Listen to some music, do some deep breathing, or just relax. Self-care is part of the essential balance to keep your mind relaxed and without chatter.
CHOOSE BEFORE YOU PLATE
When the buffet or table is ready, take a look first and decide what you want to plate. This can help with taking too much and choosing the foods you REALLY want to eat. You might find that Aunt Susie really wants you to try her new casserole, or perhaps Grandma is chiming in about how you must not forget her mashed potatoes. Identify what YOU want—I usually suggest to those who I work with to pick 4-5 foods and stick with those especially if someone passes you dishes you don’t like or is really pushing you to try something. Politely refuse and say you are really looking forward to focusing on the favorite foods on your plate.
Remember: this is just another meal that happens to fall on a holiday. Eat normally for breakfast and lunch; it’s just one meal. Try not to let this one meal dictate how you feel or how you eat throughout the day.
Eat mindfully. Use all your 5 senses to do this. Describe how the food visually looks with the colors and shapes. Notice the decorations on the table. Notice the fragrance of your food. What spices can you identify? Which has the strongest scent? Notice what happens to your face and your body when you inhale the scents. Take a bite and notice what flavors you taste. Is it as good as you remember? Notice the texture as you chew and experience more flavor. Notice any sounds, including the conversations around you.
After you eat mindfully, wait 10 minutes to check in with yourself to see if you’re still hungry. If you aren’t hungry and your family is like mine and makes enough food for an army, you know there will be leftovers so you don’t have to eat anymore. Don’t let your mind convince you that this is something grander than any other meal and that you need to take in all that you can. Now it might be easier said than done, and that is understandable, but by diminishing the concept of Thanksgiving Dinner, it will allow you to take a breath and practice how you may approach just any other meal.
FOCUS ON MOMENTS INSTEAD OF FOOD
Throughout Thanksgiving, there are bound to be moments that will help you get out of your head and into the present moment. Maybe it’s a game of Scrabble that the family begins that can distract your racing thoughts or maybe it’s catching up with a cousin you haven’t seen for 2 years. Focus on those moments and allow them to lead you through the day. They always say, “time flies when you are having fun”. Take part in setting the table, watch that football game – anything that takes your mind away and keeps you at ease. Shifting focus from the food to something else will take you away from the anxiety of the day.
GIVE YOURSELF GRACE
Finally, give yourself some grace and compassion. No one is perfect, and no one is expecting you to be. Everyone is facing their own battle and it is never easy. If you feel overwhelmed, lean on others, distract yourself, or take a break. Whatever you need to put yourself at ease, do it. At the end of the day, you’ll feel happy that you didn’t let your eating disorder hold you back from sharing your appreciation and connection amongst people who care about you or derail you from your recovery.
We hope that these tips will help you through the holiday and we’d love to hear if you have other tips in the comment section below!
From our EBHA family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving!
Dr. Altman & the EBHA Team
For self-compassion information, check out self-compassion.org
For more resources and information on eating disorders and mental health, visit our resources page and follow us on social media!
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