National Eating Disorders Association

Lessons in Self-Care: 5 Ways to Survive and Thrive Through the Holidays When You Have an Eating Disorder

August McLaughlin

“Change happens when you understand what you want to change so deeply that there is no reason to do anything but act in your own best interest.” — Geneen Roth

Food, family gatherings and thankfulness are centerpieces of many Americans’ holidays—often in that order. These very traits commonly deemed attributes are precisely what make the food-centric season challenging when you have an eating disorder, which can make festive food displays daunting and the company of others intimidating

Whether you’ve struggled with disordered eating for months, years or decades, there are ways to not only survive but thrive during the holidays. The following tips derive from courageous women who know firsthand what it’s like to accomplish the seemingly improbable: not allowing an eating disorder to zap the joy and ease from the holiday season. While the suggestions vary in specifics, they share a common thread worth adding to your holiday to-do list: prioritizing self-care. 

  1. Know that you’re not alone—not really. The contrast of lively festivities and your inner-struggle can prompt loneliness, but it doesn’t have to. “It might sound silly,” said Kelly M., a psychology major at the University of California, Berkley, “but just knowing that there are so many others out there dealing with these issues helps me feel less alone and even a little courageous.” She said that rather than simply eating for herself, she imagines she’s taking bites for others enduring similar struggles. “If I can do it,” she encourages others, “you can, too.”
  2. Confide in a supportive loved one. Little makes personal battles more difficult than bottling them up inside. To preempt such angst, Mariana J., a stay-at-home mom in Richfield, Minnesota, discusses her feelings with a girlfriend before holiday meals. “We go for a walk together and she just listens and encourages me,” she said. “Then if I have a freakout moment during a get-together, I text her an SOS.” Doing so eases tension, she said, turning sadness into inspiration and, often, laughter.
  3. Know and honor your limits. “I had to learn that self-care sometimes means bowing out of an activity,” said Jill F., a high school teacher in Los Angeles. “Nowadays, I can go most anywhere and feel un-phased, but for years, I said ‘no’ to gatherings I knew I couldn’t handle and made alternate plans to see the attendees.” If saying ‘no’ means saying ‘yes’ to your wellbeing, give yourself permission to do so. If you’re on the fence regarding a situation, discuss your dilemma with your therapist or a loved one who holds your best interests at heart.
  4. Challenge yourself, baby-step style. Holing yourself up alone to avoid food excesses or emotional triggers can be tempting during the holidays, but you won’t likely heal or grow if you don’t challenge yourself at all. Consider small, gentle challenges, says Riyanna M., a Seattle-based clinical psychologist who overcame an eating disorder in her youth. “If a huge party seems scary, host a smaller-scale event with foods you feel comfortable around,” she said, “or make a point of enjoying a portion of a food you love but normally won’t allow yourself.” You’ll know whether a step is ideal, she explained, if it seems more doable and appealing than intimidating. 
  5. Focus where it counts. Saying, “Don’t think about food or your eating disorder!” is a bit like telling someone standing in a blizzard to ignore the cold. That said, you can make efforts to focus on the aspects of the holiday season you find beautiful. When I was struggling with anorexia, I found that seeking opportunities to help others with tasks, such as wrapping gifts or running errands, shifted my moods toward the positive. Similar benefits derived from keeping a gratitude journal. It’s important to remember that no matter how dark your world may feel at times, there is brightness to behold. The more you embrace it, the more you’ll likely draw in.

Contact NEDA’s confidential helpline at 1-800-931-2237 for compassionate support and guidance. 

For recovery resources and treatment options, please visit our help and support page. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call  ANAD’s Helpline at: (888) 375-7767 or the National Alliance of Eating Disorders Helpline at: (866) 662-1235.

If you are thinking about suicide, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. In crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer from the Crisis Text Line.