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Food Freedom this Holiday Season

The holidays are a season associated with gathering with family and friends (even if it’s over Zoom this year), catching up, and sharing laughs and memories. This season often also includes traditions, many of which involve food. Because of this, the holiday season can be an especially stressful time for those in recovery from an eating disorder or individuals struggling to navigate their relationship with food.

With this in mind, if you feel like your mental health may be affected this season, here are some tips to help you get through the upcoming holidays:

1. Create a plan for coping.

If you are in recovery, it can be helpful to meet with your treatment team prior to the holidays and come up with a plan surrounding how you will cope. If you don’t have a treatment team, you can still come up with a plan to better cope during this time. You can do this by making a list of potential triggers, healthy coping skills, a list of supportive people that you can reach out to and some positive affirmations you can tell yourself.

Here are some ideas for helpful, positive affirmations:

- I am so strong.

- No food is simply “good” or “bad,” and I can make space for all food in a balanced way.

- Sometimes a little extra food means extra memories with people I love.

- Enjoying holiday food can help my social and spiritual health, which also improves my biological health.

Creating a coping plan for the holidays can allow for a decrease in anxiety, and

may help you feel better prepared to face a challenging situation.

2. Set healthy boundaries.

Keep your negativity off of my food, Aunt Jan! But seriously, take time to prepare how you can set healthy boundaries with family members or friends who decide to have a conversation about their latest diet or any weight-related comments. Because there is such an emphasis on food during the holidays, diet and weight-talk are popular topics of discussion. If you’re comfortable, having an open and honest conversation about your concerns with family members or friends may be helpful. Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself, if needed!

The following are some ideas for how to respond if the conversation shifts to diet or weight-talk:

- “I hear that you’re really into your new diet, but can we talk about something else?”

- “I’m just really thankful to be able to eat and enjoy this time together with family/friends.”

- “How is your job/school/etc. going?”

- Remove yourself from the conversation if needed. Walk away and engage in conversation elsewhere if possible.

Don’t let Aunt Jan’s comments keep you from grabbing a second plate of mac and cheese and green bean casserole (my all-time favorites). If you’re an Aunt Jan, just mind your business please.

3. Show some self-compassion.

It is okay to feel overwhelmed and as if you’re struggling, but give yourself compassion for how difficult the holidays can be (sometimes being with family is hard enough). Beating yourself up for feeling anxious or overwhelmed will only make yourself feel worse. It is much more helpful to remind yourself how brave and strong you are for stepping out of your comfort zone and facing your fears! To practice being gentle with yourself, imagine you’re speaking to your younger self or a friend who is struggling.

You may also enjoy spending some extra time engaging in self-care activities to help manage your stress. This may take the form of extra cuddles with your pet, reading a book while drinking tea or lighting your favorite holiday-scented candle. Be flexible and allow yourself to take care of yourself in the way that feels best for you.

Find encouragement in the fact that the holidays don’t have to be a distressing time forever; hopefully one day the holiday season will no longer be a source of anxiety, and thoughts of food will no longer consume you or rid you of joy. This holiday season take care of yourself, utilize healthy coping skills and boundaries, and allow yourself to step away from uncomfortable situations.

If you are not an individual who is in recovery for an eating disorder or someone that is struggling to navigate their relationship with food, there are some ways that you can help your family and friends during the holiday season. Make sure the primary focus of the holiday is not on food but rather on the valued time being spent together. Allow for other activities that don’t involve food: opening gifts together, decorating, playing games, etc. Do not talk about diets, weight loss or weight gain; this can be extremely triggering for people, and is honestly never appropriate.

This list is meant to serve as a reminder of the stressors that may occur during the holidays as well as tips and tools for support. However, this list cannot serve as a replacement for therapy or mental health care. Seek help from a professional if needed.

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