Skip to main menu Skip to content
Coping with an Eating Disorder During the Holidays

The holiday season is most often associated with traditions that may include traveling, spending time with family or friends, and tempting feasts. While these traditions can elicit feelings of anticipation and joy, they can also provoke stress, anxiety and loneliness —  especially for people who have mental health or substance use challenges, including eating disorders.

Eating disorders affect approximately 30 million people in the United States, most often women between the ages of 12 and 35, and result in severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and distorted thoughts and emotions about how their body looks or feels. People with eating disorders typically become preoccupied with food and their body weight.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has made managing eating disorders more difficult. Stress and anxiety as a result of spending more time at home, especially during the lockdown in 2020, caused many people with anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating disorder to experience a relapse of symptoms. More than one third of participants surveyed as part of a study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders said their eating disorder had worsened during the pandemic. Another study found that hospital admissions related to eating disorders increased by 25% over pre-pandemic trends for patients ages 12-18.

Wherever you are on your journey to recovery from an eating disorder, social events and family gatherings that involve food can be stressful, making this time of year potentially triggering and difficult. It’s important that you prepare a few strategies in advance to protect your mental health.

Use these tips as a place to start.

  1. Create a plan. As you prepare for upcoming events, create a plan to help you get through it and manage any stressors. This may include finding a quiet place at the venue to go to if you’re feeling anxious, having someone to call or text, writing down topics of conversation that you can turn to if you feel nervous, or creating a mantra or affirmation you can repeat internally if the need arises.
  2. Have a support system on call. Whether they’re attending the event with you or someone you can reach out to by call or text, have someone to turn to if you’re feeling anxious or stressed. Research has shown that having a social support system can have a positive impact on your overall mental health, combat social isolation and loneliness, and be especially helpful during a crisis.
  3. Practice self-care. Find coping mechanisms that bring you joy and reduce your stress. This can include things like exercise, meditation, journaling and getting a good night’s rest. If you feel stressed in the moment, breathing exercises can be an easy, quick way to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
  4. Shift your focus. Remind yourself of what the holidays mean to you and focus on the positives. You can practice this by creating a gratitude journal – take a few minutes every day to think about what you are grateful for and write it down. This will help you build the habit of focusing on the good from each day and event.
  5. Don’t be afraid to say no. You may feel pressure to attend every event this holiday season, but it’s important to protect your time, space and mental wellbeing. If you don’t want to do something, don’t feel like you have to. Healthy boundaries are vital.

By taking time to plan ahead of holiday events and practice self-care, you can #BeTheDifference for yourself and manage symptoms of an eating disorder. It’s also important to remember that this is a journey that will get easier day by day. Focus on what you can do today to take care of your mental health.

For more information and tips around eating disorders, read these blogs from Mental Health First Aid:

  1. 7 Things You Need to Know About Eating Disorders – Mental Health First Aid
  2. 3 Common Types of Eating Disorders – Mental Health First Aid
  3. How to Help Someone with an Eating Disorder – Mental Health First Aid
  4. Self-care: Where Do I Start? – Mental Health First Aid
  5. How to Take Care of Yourself When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed – Mental Health First Aid

 

References

Christianson, D. (n.d.). 5 tips for coping with an eating disorder during the holidays. https://centerfordiscovery.com/blog/tips-eating-disorder-during-the-holidays/. Center for Discovery.

Konstantinovsky, M. (2020, August 26). COVID-19-Era Isolation Is Making Dangerous Eating Disorders Worse. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/covid-19-era-isolation-is-making-dangerous-eating-disorders-worse/.

Little, D., Teriakidis, A., Lindgren, E., Allen, S., Barkley, E., & Rubin-Miller, L. (2021, April 29). Increase in Adolescent Hospitalizations Related to Eating Disorders. Epic Health Research Network. https://ehrn.org/articles/increase-in-adolescent-hospitalizations-related-to-eating-disorders .

Magnolia Creek. (2019). Coping With Eating Disorders During the Holidays. http://www.magnolia-creek.com/eating-disorder-recovery-blog/coping-with-eating-disorders-during-the-holidays/.

Mental Health First Aid USA. (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA for adults assisting adults. Washington, DC: National Council for Mental Wellbeing.