Social gatherings of all types can create stress and anxiety, especially for someone with an eating disorder. Something that should be a fun occasion can quickly turn into a nightmare when triggers are present and there is no plan of action. Year-round, bulimia sufferers attend events where they feel uncomfortable due to food anxiety and body-image issues.
In December, lots of people around the world are celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa or St. Lucia Day, then ringing in the New Year. For many people this is a time for family, friends and parties. For some, it is a magical time of year where they give and receive gifts, spend time with loved ones and listen to festive music.
Unfortunately for many, the holiday season also comes with anxiety, depression, loneliness, stress and issues surrounding food. Then after the holidays, many proceed to create New Year’s Resolutions where they create idealistic goals for the upcoming year, which are rarely completed.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the holidays.
I enjoy the time spent with family and I love sending greetings and well-wishes to others. I also enjoy celebrating the New Year. However, when I suffered from bulimia, the holidays were a terrible time for me.
I stressed constantly about holiday dinner parties, wanting to look my thinnest when visiting people I hadn’t seen in a while. I avoided all extra treats and threw away any food gifts I received. I drank too much wine at parties because I felt insecure and nervous. I also turned down invitations to certain gatherings where I knew I would be especially triggered.
My holidays after recovery are a time for celebration and love. Your holidays with friends and family should be this way too. You deserve to relax and enjoy the festivities, rather than experience food anxiety.
Here are my 7 tips for successfully managing holidays and challenging meals. These tips can be used at gatherings throughout the year such as birthday parties, office gatherings and picnics. Anytime there is an abundance of food and a group of people, you may find these tips to be helpful.
By thinking ahead about what your fears are, you can work through them before you arrive at the event. Are you concerned that you will eat too much? Decide in advance that you will not stand and eat from the appetizer table, but instead will make a plate of food and walk away. Commit to one serving of dessert if you are comfortable with that. Visualize ahead of time the possible things that may go wrong and come up with a strategy for dealing with these things.
Do you have a family member who always comments on your weight? Have something planned out in advance that you will respond with, or avoid that person if possible. Is a certain dish triggering for you? Have an alternative available that you are comfortable eating.
Are you afraid of taking home leftovers? Come up with a plan that will get you out of taking anything home. For example, your aunt insists that you take home dessert but you know it will end badly if you do. Ask her if you can take home something less triggering instead. This way you aren’t insulting the host by refusing leftovers, you are just requesting less triggering leftovers to bring home. Or refuse leftovers entirely by saying they will spoil in the car or that you already have a dessert at home that you need to finish.
Come up with all potential triggers you can think of, and list ways of dealing with them. If you show up without a plan it will be much more difficult to come up with something on the spot.
View this special meal as you would any other meal in structured eating. Many people restrict all day if they know a heavy meal will be served later. This only sets you up to binge because you will be at the event while feeling extra hungry. Try and forget about it being a holiday or special occasion and focus on eating as you normally would. Have a snack ahead of time and plan to eat a normal amount without restricting.
Try to include a serving of carbohydrates, protein and fat in your meal. If this isn’t possible because you are avoiding a trigger food or it simply isn’t available, that’s ok. Just aim for a meal that is as balanced as possible and move on. Recovery is about progress, not perfection.
After the meal is over, have a plan of what you will do to take your mind off the food. Some ideas may be to play cards, step outside for a bit, engage in a conversation with someone, introduce yourself to someone new, or offer to help the host make coffee or tea. Make a list of distractions and have several ideas when you get there. Your first plan may fall through so you might need a second available.
Alcohol and bulimia are not a good combination. Drinking alcohol can cause a quick spike in blood sugar, which eventually drops and leaves you feeling hungry. It also lowers your inhibitions and can hinder your ability to make good decisions. One drink may be fine, but after several you might experience a binge urge that is stronger and more difficult to fight. At dinner parties where people are drinking, you may be tempted to overdo it, but just remember that you can be social and have a good time without it.
Remember that a holiday gathering is really just another day in recovery. It may be an extra challenging day for you, but that day will pass and eventually there will be another holiday or social gathering to worry about. If you panic and worry, that will only increase your anxiety and make things more difficult. Try to relax, plan ahead and enjoy the company.
There’s no need to restrict and try to be extra thin for social gatherings. This type of thinking only sets you up to binge later. Remember that you are in recovery, which means that going on a diet will not be helpful. Instead, focus on increasing confidence in other ways. Have an engaging conversation with another guest or family member, style your hair in a nice way, wear something that makes you feel good, and focus less on appearance and more on your interaction with others.
Loneliness is a very triggering emotion, which is unfair because bulimia tends to isolate its sufferers. Do your best to get out there and interact with others when possible. If you are invited to a dinner, you may dread it and stress about it, but rarely will you regret attending. Remember that in recovery, you are not alone. Get some support from the Bulimia Help Community or talk to a loved one about your food anxiety. Even if you decide to eat before the event so that you aren’t triggered, do your best to get out there and interact with others. By isolating yourself, you are only increasing your loneliness.
Overall, just do your best and don’t get down if things aren’t perfect. There are plenty of chances in recovery to be successful, so strive for balance and improvement. Perfection is not necessary in order to recover.
For those who don't know me, my name is Jen Knaebel. I'm a recovery coach here at Bulimia Help. I've made a full recovery from bulimia and now spend my time coaching others through the process.
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