Please remember that I am not a professional and you should reach out to one if you are experiencing a mental health crisis. The National Eating Disorders Association’s website can also help direct you to local resources. This article is meant to provide suggestions to eating disorder sufferers and their families, but the content could potentially be distressing. Read with caution.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year… unless you have an eating disorder. While the fall and winter holidays might make some people feel joyful, it can be very anxiety-provoking for those dealing with mental illness. As a struggling anorexic, Thanksgiving being right around the corner is a very stressful experience. I know that this year will be especially difficult given the ongoing pandemic. However, I am thankful to have learned coping skills over the years that my loved ones and I can apply. Here are a few ways to have a better Thanksgiving experience if you or someone you know struggles with an eating disorder.
To the person struggling with an eating disorder:
- Make a plan beforehand. If you see a dietician, counselor, or professional about your eating disorder, try to work out a plan with them in order to avoid the stress of deciding how much to eat. In the past, I have worked with my dietician to determine what foods work with my meal plan and nourish my body in the best way. Some years, I even worked with my team to practice challenging a specific “fear food”. If you don’t have a team, consider asking a trusted loved one ahead of time to help you determine a goal. It is also worth noting that not all eating disorders are restrictive; making a plan can also help avoid triggering binge/purge behaviors.
- Wear clothing you are comfortable in. A stressful part about thanksgiving can be the feeling of fullness or bloating after your meal. It is important to note that this is completely natural and does not determine your worth. However, it can be very uncomfortable to sit with. I personally like to wear a loose top with some leggings. They are stretchy and don’t reveal my entire stomach. I feel a lot more comfortable knowing that no one else is seeing the parts of my body I am insecure with. Wearing less restrictive clothing helps me, but tighter clothing might help others. There is no wrong thing to wear as long as you feel mentally safe in it.
- Take space when you need it. It is more than okay to step aside from the dining room or table if you are feeling overwhelmed. Feel free to excuse yourself and take deep breaths in a different space to calm yourself. Sometimes going to the bathroom and running my hands under cold water helps me calm down as well. If the bathroom is a trigger, you can also step outside for some fresh air.
- Try to combat comparison. It is obviously easier said than done, but try to avoid comparing yourself to other people around you. If someone eats more or less than you, try to remember that every person has different needs. What anyone else is eating has no effect on you. This is a difficult one, but just try to be aware as any thoughts occur.
- Come up with COVID-safe alternatives. If you are going to be home alone on Thanksgiving due to social distancing, see if there is a family member or friend you can virtually have a meal with. Eating alone or sitting alone after a meal can be triggering, so if you can find someone to facetime/zoom with, go for it! It can be hard to have plans change in accordance with COVID guidelines, but please don’t feel hopeless. Your eating disorder does not have to win during this pandemic.
- Reach out to someone you trust. If you are comfortable with opening up to someone you will be celebrating with, do so. Having someone to talk to during or after a meal can be a helpful way to remain supported during a tough time.
- Do something distracting after the meal. Sitting with thoughts and feelings after a meal can be stressful, emotional, and triggering. Try and distract yourself after the meal, away from the kitchen, dining room, and bathroom. Personally, my family used to play board games and do puzzles when I was younger. As I got older, we had conversations about non-food or body-related topics. Even personal self-care is a great option (I promise you deserve it). There are endless options… don’t be afraid to do something you enjoy!
For those supporting a loved one with an eating disorder
- Be mindful of table conversation. Sometimes we don’t realize that things we commonly say can affect other people. When struggling with an eating disorder, it can be hard to hear comments about weight, body, nutrition, or activity when eating (or after). Let’s try to avoid comments about how a certain food will make you feel guilty or gain weight. Bypass conversations about your post-holiday diet. Commenting things like your pumpkin pie is going to make you gain x amount of pounds is unneeded (and also untrue). Assigning a value to food just doesn’t need to be verbalized. Most importantly, never comment about the food someone else is eating. It can make everyone involved uncomfortable.
- Absolutely no body-related talk. That’s right. It doesn’t matter if you think someone looks really good, or if you are concerned about someone’s weight loss. It is unnecessary and stressful. Try to compliment people for things other than appearance. Commend your family member for good grades, for their art, for their kindness, or anything other than how they look. You might mean well, but it can be very hard to hear.
- Be there for them. Lend your loved one an ear if they are stressed. Remind them that perfection is not necessary; it is an unrealistic thing for you to expect. Their presence is more meaningful than anything. You don’t have to go up to them and ask them if they are OK every few moments, but just being there can be helpful. If they choose to come to you, do not make them feel like a burden. Their eating disorder is separate from their identity.
- Acknowledge that you don’t have to “fix” everything. At the end of the day, it is your loved one’s job to recover. Being considerate of your actions is important, but you can’t force them into recovery. Your support is appreciated and that is all you can do.
- Consider the location. Before and after eating, it can be helpful to socialize in an area other than the dining room. Sitting in the place you eat while you aren’t eating can contribute to heightened levels of anxiety. If you can’t move locations, remove food items and cutlery, unless it is being used. This is a simple way to relieve some anxiety for a loved one.
- Check-in on loved ones who might not be with you. Whether it is related to COVID or something else, give your struggling loved ones a call. There is no need to ask them if they ate; tell them you are thinking of them and let them drive the discussion. Eating disorders can cause isolation and loneliness. Your call could be something that brightens an otherwise stressful Thanksgiving.
At the end of the day, Thanksgiving is a holiday to express gratitude for the people and things in your life – not just about a family feast. It doesn’t have to be food-centric if you don’t want it to be. Remember the reasons you are grateful and focus on those. Having an eating disorder or loving someone with one is hard. The holidays are even harder on top of that. Try and have grace with yourself. Give thanks for what you can. That’s all anyone can ask.