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Avoiding an Eating Disorder Relapse During the Holidays

Table setting for holiday

At least 30 million Americans suffer from eating disorders. While difficult to navigate at the best of times, these disorders are an even heavier burden during the holiday season, a time that should be enjoyed, not endured.

The holidays are especially challenging for a few reasons: "First, holiday gatherings tend to be centered on food, much of which tends to be high in sugar and fat," says Nick Galli, PhD, certified mental performance consultant (CMPC) and assistant professor at the University of Utah. "Second, the holidays can bring prolonged exposure to family members who may have contributed to the development of the eating disorder in the first place. Third, because holiday gatherings often take place away from home, individuals with eating disorders are often forced out of their comfort zone in terms of usual foods and even usual stress-management strategies."

If you're worried about losing ground in your battle against an eating disorder, it's important to recognize your triggers, understand the signs of a relapse, learn what you can do if you relapse, and know how to get back on track.

Triggers for Eating Disorders

The inability to cope with life stressors or traumatic events may mark the onset of an eating disorder, and reminders of those events or stressors may trigger a relapse.

For many people who've recovered from an eating disorder, triggers are all around during the holiday season. These triggers include conversations about weight and food, even if they don't involve the person with an eating disorder; visiting people and places associated with the onset or continuation of an eating disorder; and the ever-present sugar- and fat-laden food. Understanding your triggers can help you avoid them, and to be prepared for when you run into them.

"Having a strong network of folks who understand and can provide support is the best strategy," Galli says. "If you don't have strong support, you need to be even more vigilant about planning." This includes anticipating some of the likely challenges and problem-solving solutions. Take your own snacks, pack distractions like books and games, and don't be afraid to say no.

Signs of a Holiday-Caused Relapse

The added stress of the holiday season can lead to a lapse—an isolated instance—for a person recovering from an eating disorder, and that lapse could lead to a relapse—a return to the eating disorder state. For people who arehave recovered from an eating disorder, it's important to recognize the signs of a lapse or relapse.

  • You're continually thinking about diet and weight.
  • You feel hopeless and can't find an outlet for your stress.
  • You divert from your established recovery eating schedule.
  • You feel an enormous sense of shame after eating.
  • You look for reasons to skip meals.
  • You hide information from your eating disorder treatment professionals.

Recognizing the warning signs of a lapse or relapse, and acting quickly, can keep you in recovery.

What to Do

Maybe you thought you were prepared for the holiday season and had a strong network, but you've noticed the signs of an eating disorder creeping back into your life. It's not too late to get help or stop the relapse. Here are a few actions you can take:

  • Seek help from a professional.
  • Work on self-approval and understand your limitations.
  • Combat or challenge any negative thoughts with a positive internal dialogue."You might challenge a thought such as 'I can't believe I just ate that whole piece of pie. What a pig I am,' with 'I wouldn't ordinarily eat the whole piece, but it's the holidays, and one piece of pie isn't going to kill me,'" Galli said.
  • Eat regularly and pay attention to when your body is hungry and full.
  • If necessary, seek help for anxiety or depression.

Understanding the steps to take when a lapse or relapse happens will help you get back on track.

The holiday season is a vulnerable time for people recovering from an eating disorder. It's important to recognize your triggers, understand the signs of a relapse, learn what you can do if you start relapsing, but most of all, it's vital that you enjoy your holiday season and the people around you.