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Eating Disorders

Seven Tips for Facing Thanksgiving With an Eating Disorder

You may have more choices than you think. Start by setting a helpful intention.

Gabriel Sepulveda/Unsplash
Source: Gabriel Sepulveda/Unsplash

This post was written by Gia Marson, Ed.D.

This year, more than ever, it’s vital to have a proactive strategy to get through Thanksgiving. The rituals and traditions you’re used to may have changed. COVID-19 may have disrupted where you go for the holiday or who you’ll be with. You might be faced with stressful political conversations. Or you might be sad about having to spend the day alone.

These changes can bring on strong negative emotions, anxiety, and uncertainty. Recently published research shows that higher levels of COVID-19-related anxiety and intolerance of uncertainty are associated with more severe eating disorder symptoms (Scharmer et al. 2020). This finding aligns with my clinical experience treating eating disorders and additional research we share in our book, The Binge Eating Prevention Workbook (2020).

If you’re currently obsessing about food, restricting, binge eating, or purging—or worried that you might on Thanksgiving—know that you have options. With a little planning and these seven simple tips, you can embrace the spirit of the holiday with more emotional control and less ambiguity about how you’ll handle food challenges.

  1. Set an intention. Making a plan ahead of time keeps you—rather than the eating disorder—in charge. You might decide in advance: “Today, I plan to fully participate in conversations and activities with friends and family.” Write it down so you can clarify exactly how you want to handle the day. That way, if your mind or behaviors get caught up in bad habits, you can bring your attention and actions back to your intention.
  2. Stay away from body checking and body talk. Think about how you can reduce body-checking behaviors when you're getting ready and throughout the day. You may be attempting to reduce anxiety with body-checking rituals, but instead, you're likely to become more self-critical. Walk away or change the subject if it veers toward body shape or size, losing weight, or dieting. Even innocent-sounding small talk can stir up unwelcome thoughts or feelings about body image. You might interject, “I hear what you’re saying about _______. And something I’m grateful for is __________.” This brings the topic back to what the day is really all about.
  3. Stick to your regular eating schedule. You might be tempted to skip breakfast on Thanksgiving or cut back on your food intake the day before or after. But these eating disorder behaviors inevitably lead to more eating disorder behaviors. Instead of restricting or fasting, adhere to your usual meal plan or intuitive eating guidelines, as if it were an ordinary day. Anticipate challenges that may arise too. It might be helpful to decide ahead of time if taking leftovers home is best for you. If it’s not, practice how you’ll graciously say no. After all, declining such a kind offer isn’t easy.
  4. Ask for support. Can someone you trust make you a plate of food, distract you after the meal, engage you in positive conversation, accompany you on a short walk, or check in with you periodically to ask what you need? If no one like this will be present, can you connect with someone you trust over the phone, text, or video call?
  5. Choose people over the eating disorder. Focus on engaging with others rather than obsessing about the food that’s coming or the food you already ate. Making connections is also a good reminder that a happy, healthy life is often filled with satisfying relationships. Are there guests you find inspiring, funny, fun, or especially kind? If so, actively seek them out. If you’re not gathering in person, call a loved one.
  6. Use coping skills that work for you. Participate in games. Meditate. Take a nature break. Connect with gratitude in your heart (and make sure to really feel it). Be of service by helping the host. Use deep breathing to calm anxious energy in your body. Focus on helpful thoughts. Create a list of three positive thoughts and actions in the notes section of your phone and refer to it when you are aware of feeling distressed. Radically accept that Thanksgiving may be a difficult day—and then commit to getting through it with recovery actions. Just by acknowledging your experience of negative emotions, you decrease the risk of emotional eating (Dingemans et al., 2017).
  7. Commit to having a guilt-free day. On and around the holiday, notice any guilt related to food or eating habits—and let it go. It's OK to give yourself permission to enjoy the holiday foods. Thanksgiving is one day. Keep any slips in perspective and return to regular eating as soon as possible. This is easier said than done, but give it your best effort. Label the day: a day without guilt.

Yes, Thanksgiving has its challenges. But it also presents you with time to prepare and a lot of choices. Every bit of progress is a step toward creating a new normal when it comes to handling holidays. Choose to follow your usual eating plan, which can reduce the anxiety associated with uncertainty. Choose to ground yourself in your values, which will help you manage novel situations and tolerate difficult emotions. Choose to set an intention that is meaningful to you. What will it be? Whatever it is, when you make it in service of your own values, you set yourself up for health and success.

References

Dingemans, A., Danner U., and Parks. M. (2017). Emotion Regulation in Binge Eating Disorder: A Review. Nutrients 9: 1,274. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9111274.

Marson, G. & Keenan-Miller, D. (2020). The Binge Eating Prevention Workbook: An eight-week individualized program to overcome compulsive eating and make peace with food. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Scharmer C., Martinez K., Gorrell S., Reilly E.E., Donahue J.M., and Anderson, D.A. (2020). Eating disorder pathology and compulsive exercise during the COVID-19 public health emergency: Examining risk associated with COVID-19 anxiety and intolerance of uncertainty. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 2020;1–6. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23395.

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