Maintaining Eating Disorder Recovery During the Holidays

Contributor: Rachel Porter, PsyD for Carolina House

christmas-67822_640As I sit writing this, I’m trying to drink in Fall in all its glory- the cooler temperatures, the changing leaves, the many pumpkin spice opportunities- all of it.

And yet, despite my efforts to focus fully on Fall, I am also already being bombarded with messages that “the holidays” are approaching- I see red and green lights strung merrily on balconies, hear radio ads for holiday shopping sales and winter clothes, and am surrounded by people planning their own special holiday times.

It makes staying mindful pretty difficult- and I’m someone who loves the general holiday season that is late November through early January.

Mindfulness During the Holidays

This led me to wonder- how hard must mindfulness be for those that look toward these holidays with dread rather than joyous anticipation? While there are many reasons that the holiday season is challenging for people, for the purposes of this article, I will focus on those individuals whose difficulty around the holidays is related to their eating disorders.

For people with eating disorders, the holidays are a minefield of triggering situations- the obvious ones (bountiful feasts of plenty) and the less obvious ones (the downtime after a meal, the family interactions, or the general pressure to “be happy” at this time of year).

A Tool For Managing Triggers

One of the best tools for managing a variety of triggers is also one of the hardest to master- mindfulness. Mindfulness is challenging for people for a many reasons- First and foremost, people often feel they must completely clear their minds of thought.

This is a nearly impossible task for beginning practitioners of mindfulness, and need not be an objective. Another barrier for many individuals is that people often spend significant time engaged with the past or with the future- very little time is spent in the present.

Finally, people tend to think that they must be mindful for large chunks of time- making the prospect of engaging in mindfulness pretty overwhelming.

Mastering Mindfulness for Continued Recovery

girl-162474_640The following steps will help you overcome these barriers and master mindfulness- but remember, just like almost everything, it’s easier said than done. In learning all new skills, it is essential to have patience and compassion for the learning process- expecting perfection right away will most assuredly lead to failure before even starting.

Imagine Your Brain as a Teflon Pan:

Of course, one of the major identifying factors of Teflon is that nothing sticks to it! For people with eating disorders, especially around the holidays, it’s very likely that thoughts are coming rapidly. There is also a high likelihood that many of these thoughts are negative and judgmental:

“You shouldn’t eat that!”
“Aunt Rose is looking at me- she is judging my body!”
“I don’t deserve this food”

– and so on and so forth, at approximately 100 miles/hour. Envisioning the mind as Teflon allows you to let these thoughts slide off it- and engaging in mindfulness practice can then allow you to direct your thought somewhere more productive- and hopefully more pleasant.

Another part of letting your mind be, as if made of Teflon, is stopping yourself from judging the thoughts- they merely are. It’s ok that they are there- and it’s ok if you direct your focus elsewhere for a bit.

Engage Your Senses:

One of the most accessible parts of mindfulness for most people is sensory engagement. Our five senses- sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell- are with us all the time. Beginning to truly engage your senses with your environment is an incredibly powerful way to remind you that you are only in one moment in time.

The holiday season is a time ripe for engaging more in the past and future than in the present, and noticing the things in the current environment can allow you to focus on the moment. You can again redirect thoughts to where you want and need them to be.

Take in the sight of a candle’s light, a soothing scent, truly listen to a specific noise around you- and remind yourself “I am only right here and I only have to deal with this moment, and no others.”

Particularly engaging with taste can be very helpful- and very difficult. But when truly focusing on the taste of the food, it will allow you to much more easily notice when you are satisfied.

Redirect, Redirect, Redirect:

girl-264853_640I’ve already mentioned that a big part of mindfulness is redirecting your thoughts to a more productive place. In fact, I would argue that the whole point of mindfulness meditations is to learn how to do this- it takes a great deal of practice to direct your mind to where you want it!

I’ve had a great many clients tell me that they gave up on meditation and mindfulness practice because “I couldn’t even clear my mind for 15 minutes!” While 15 minutes is relatively brief in the grand scheme of life, it is approximately equivalent to forever when first learning to engage in mindfulness practice.

Aim for 15 seconds instead. Even 5 seconds. And go ahead and tell yourself: “I am going to have to do this over and over again.” Because you will, at first. Mindfulness is just like any other skill- it takes a ton of practice.

It isn’t something you only do one time- you must do it over and over again. Eventually, you will be able to fully engage with the present moment with much less effort, but at first? Plan to re-engage with mindfulness again and again.

Practice These Three Steps

Even though these are only three steps, they are three difficult steps that will take a lot of practice- and give you a big payoff. Do not expect to master them all in one day, at one family feast, or at one night alone with your thoughts- start practicing now.

Engaging in mindfulness truly is a cornerstone in maintaining recovery. And one final step: Breathe through it all. Your breath will sustain you through even the toughest of holidays.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What is your experience with remaining focused in your recovery through the holidays?

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 12th, 2014
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