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Holiday Stress

The holiday season for many in recovery from an eating disorder like Anorexia, Bulimia or Compulsive Overeating can be a difficult time. During the holidays food often becomes a central focus in our lives. During this time of year, family activities, social functions, and even work related activities often are centered on food. Along with the focus on food, additional pressures can include:

  • Internal imposed pressures of wanting to look good and fit into a nice holiday outfit for family functions, pictures and social events.
  • Stress from interacting with family members. With eating disordered families, communication is often dysfunctional, if there is even any communication at all. 
  • Feelings of loneliness. Around the holiday season, individuals with eating disorders can experience isolation.
  • Comments from family and friends about physical appearance such as, “you look so thin” or “I’ve heard of this incredible diet.”
  • Eating with, and in front of, others during family meals and social gatherings.
  • The over abundance of possible binge foods at family gatherings, social functions, and the workplace.
  • The perceived pressures of another year gone by.

It is no wonder, with the cumulative effect of all of the above listed pressures, that the holiday season is one of the periods of time with the greatest rates of dysfunctional eating. With appropriate planning ahead of time, you can help alleviate the stress associated with this time of year.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Holiday memories can be some of our most cherished, and at the same time, most painful. Memories of running down the stairs bright eyed, ready to divvy up the loot with our family, or the special feeling of receiving a unique gift from a close relative, will always be cherished. Traditional holiday decorations and practices are special for others. Unfortunately, included with these positive memories may also be painful ones of feeling alone, secret bingeing, or being embarrassed about our bodies.

Each of us attempts to deal with our past in different ways. Some try to recapture happy memories during each holiday season. Others attempt to have the present holiday make up for past seasons that may have been missed due to painful family situations. Trying to make the present recapture or make up for the past can set the present holiday up for failure. These situations hold the present holiday a prisoner of our past. There never seems to be enough happiness, presents or lights to fill up the emptiness felt inside. Unfortunately, this leaves the eating disordered behavior as the only option for someone with Anorexia, Bulimia or Compulsive Overeating to try and fill the void of the unfulfilled expectations.

Armed with this knowledge, instead of living in the past, you can live in the present and make new cherished memories. By becoming willing to understand our internal expectations for the season and by letting go of the hold the holidays have on us, we can become free to appreciate and enjoy the present situation. An exercise that can be useful in preparing your expectations for the holidays is:

  1. Draw five columns on a blank piece of paper.
  2. Under the first column write down your first memory of the holiday.
  3. Under the second column write down one or two of your fondest memories from the holiday.
  4. Under the third column write down instances when you were practicing your eating disorder during the holidays.
  5. Under the forth column list the ways you have spent the holidays in recovery.
  6. Under the final column write down your future goals for the holidays.
  7. For the final part of the exercise compare the columns and notice if there are any themes that run through your memories and goals.


Sometimes in trying to survive the pressures of the holiday season, individuals with Anorexia, Bulimia or Compulsive Eating disorders attempt to deny their importance. They tell themselves this is just another day of the week and try to convince themselves that they are not going to get caught up in all the seasonal frenzy. This ploy usually does not work, as no matter how hard the person tries, the holidays never present themselves as just another day. Isolation does not work and usually just makes the person feel lonely during this time of year. In actuality, the best medicine for the holiday blues is to reach out to other individuals. Risking and sharing is a powerful tool. Even if the person you share with is unable to alleviate negative feelings, the process of sharing those negative feelings can help to mitigate them. It is important to surround yourself with individuals who can empathize with you and understand what you may be going through.


The holiday season is traditionally a time for family gatherings. During the celebrations the social expectation is for everyone to be happy and to enjoy each other’s company. For some attending family functions this will be an enlightening experience, heightening the enjoyment of the season.

For others, interacting with family members can cause significant stress. Oftentimes, communication between family members is dysfunctional or non existent. Many individuals may have family members who may be in the mist of a disorder and getting together with these individuals may not be the correct decision. For eating disordered individuals, comfort in the past may have been sought through restricting or bingeing. To help avert a potentially dangerous situation it is important to plan ahead. Before attending a family function you may want to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are my expectations for this family gathering?
  • What might my family expect of me?
  • What are some realistic expectations for the family function?
  • What part of the family gathering am I most looking forward to?
  • What part of the family gathering am I most concerned about?
  • How much involvement am I willing to have with the family event?
  • What steps can I take to take care of myself during the family gathering?