Drinking and Eating During the Holidays: A Setup for Relapse?

Contributor: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC for Eating Disorder Hope

snowboarding-554048_640Eating disorders are often co-morbid conditions, meaning they can commonly occur with other mental or behavioral conditions. For example, some individuals with eating disorders may also struggle with substance abuse, such as alcoholism or an addiction to drugs.

Research has demonstrated that individuals with eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder, have an increased potential for substance abuse compared to other individuals who do not have an eating disorder [1].

Similar genetic expressions could be a commonality between both eating disorders and substance abuse, which plays a tremendous role in the development and progression of both disorders.

Dual Diagnosis Is Complex But Treatable

Comorbid conditions are complex but treatable with professional help and care. Individuals who suffer with co-occurring conditions, such as an eating disorder and alcoholism, may find that both disorders fluctuate over time.

For example, an eating disorder may be in remission while alcoholism is an active struggle. Similarly, a person may be sober and abstinent from alcohol yet find themselves struggling with an eating disorder.

Using One to “Cope” for the Other

The danger arises when one disorder is used to “cope with” another disorder. Some individuals recovering from an eating disorder may turn to alcohol as a means of dealing with triggers and to avoid eating disordered behaviors, yet this endangers a person to yet another behavioral condition.

Recognizing and understanding these tendencies can be a helpful part in preventing another or both disorders from escalating.

Strategies for Dealing with the Holidays

woman-228176_640The holiday season can be particularly challenging for many individuals, especially those struggling with mental and behavioral health conditions. The emphasis on food and drinking during this time of year can bring about many triggers to a person in recovery from an eating disorder and alcoholism.

What can a person due to help support themselves through this time period when multiple stressors or a chaotic environment trigger co-occurring disorders?

Understand your triggers:

If you are dealing with co-occurring disorders, such as an eating disorder and alcoholism, know what triggers these behaviors. Protecting your sobriety and recovery is possible through any situation, as long as you are aware of things that may trigger you and able to cope appropriately.

The point of understanding your triggers is not to completely avoid them but to proactively prepare yourself for encountering such situations.

Enlist support:

Because of the complexities of comorbid conditions, support is crucial to your ongoing recovery. Whether this be a family member, trusted friend or mentor, connect to someone who keep you accountable during times that are particularly challenging.

Will you be attending a holiday party, revisiting old friends, or going a long period without any form of treatment? Make it point to take time to connect with your support system. Sometimes just having the opportunity to talk with someone about how your day is going to help you reflect on the things you are experiencing.

Practice mindfulness:

The chaotic nature of the holiday season can leave you feeling overwhelmed and burnt out. Recovery from any mental health disorder requires constant vigilance and dedication. Taking time out from every day to focus on yourself and practice self-care will be important to your recovery.

Doing this on a daily basis can help you pinpoint when things seem amiss or simply to recharge your batteries. Mindfulness of your thoughts and emotions will help you stay on track in your recovery.

An Extension, not a Replacement for Professional Treatment

zeigefingr-262103_640These suggestions are helpful for maintaining recovery from comorbid disorders but can only be effective as an extension of ongoing professional treatment. Because of the serious physical, mental and emotional consequences that can result from eating and substance disorders, it is essential to seek treatment from specialists in the area.

Many treatment programs offer support for co-occurring disorders, and only through professional treatment can an individual find healing from these conditions. If you are searching for true healing from a struggle with an eating disorder and substance abuse, treatment is key.

This holiday season, or any season of your life, you may find yourself struggling with co-occurring disorders. Understanding your triggers, enlisting support, and practicing mindfulness can all be helpful techniques to help you maintain the strides you have made in your recovery for the long term.

Community discussion – share your thoughts here!

How do you think alcoholism complicated an eating disorder? If you have struggled with a co-occurring disorder, what aspects of treatment have been helpful to your recovery journey?


  1. “Food for thought: Substance abuse and eating disorders”, https://secure3.convio.net/neda/site/TRR/NEDAWalk/General/1916844979?pg=ptype&fr_id=3430 Accessed 24 Dec 2015.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 8th, 2015
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com