Yes, You Can Enjoy Thanksgiving When You Have an Eating Disorder

Thanksgiving wasn’t necessarily a happy holiday for me. It even triggered my first foray into true disordered eating. My parents were divorced and I alternated who I spent the holiday with. When with my Mom, it tended to be rough.

My Grandmother constantly compared me to my cousin, “Why can’t you be more like Allison?” Allison was tall and skinny, I was short and athletic. Allison had a life I could never imagine. She lived in a big house in the suburbs- her mother didn’t work, but stayed home and made big elaborate Thanksgiving dinners, complete with pies, homemade whipped cream and creamed onions.

I, on the other hand, lived alone in a small apartment in New York City with my Mom. She worked two jobs and was allergic to onions. Allison would leave the house after Thanksgiving dinner to go sledding with her friends. And me, there was no sledding. I was mostly alone in our apartment, sitting in front of the television eating cheerios with milk and waiting for my Mom to come home.

Thanksgiving can be a rough holiday for lots of people.

If it brings up feelings of being lonely, being an outsider, and not having real friends or close family. Add in the food and you may be feeling additional stress and anxiety. Here are 13 tips that will help you make this year’s Thanksgiving one you truly enjoy and remember. 

1. Be mindful of Phantom urges

Phantom urges are desires to reenact the same behaviors that you did when you were young because you’re either with your family of origin or in a situation that’s old and familiar to you. For instance, you go home to visit your family and although you haven’t binged and purged in years, you find that you are having urges to act out with food as soon as everyone goes to sleep.

Being back in the same place where your behaviors began reminds you of those behaviors. However, they’re not attached to any real desire or need.

When you notice those urges coming up, remind yourself “oh, this isn’t real, it’s an old behavior attached to an old desire because I’m in an old place… but I don’t have to follow it through.

2. Be intentional with food and alcohol

Before you even go into the meal, set some loving and kind boundaries with yourself about what you will eat and how much you will drink. Making this intention will help you to empower yourself around food and alcohol rather than letting the food and accompanying thoughts take over Thanksgiving. Share this intention with a family member or supportive friend or your therapist.

3. Set boundaries

Before you go, set a boundary with your family to not make any comments about what and how much you are eating or to push food on you.

That includes not pushing leftovers on you.

4. Build support into your day

Make sure you have an important support resource at the meal with you. This could be the Rise Up + Recover app, a recovery buddy or sponsor that you will be talking to before, during, and after the meal or even bringing a good friend with you to the meal. Consider seeking additional support during this stressful time through programs such as this one.

5. Don’t show up super hungry

Don’t restrict breakfast in anticipation of a big Thanksgiving meal and make sure you are nourished before you go so that you can make mindful choices.

6. Engage in conversation

Set an intention to have meaningful conversations with people you haven’t spoken to before or people you love and don’t see very often. Try to talk to people in rooms away from food so that it doesn’t pull your attention away from being present with those you love.

7. Slow down

Try to eat your dinner slowly and mindfully so that you can really enjoy good food and good conversation. Don’t compulsively overexercise in anticipation of “eating extra calories.”  It will leave you very tired and hungry, again, unable to empower yourself to hold your intention.

8. Take walks or time outs

Let yourself leave the situation and take mini breaks. Give yourself permission to get away from the stress of the food and the stress of family that sometimes exists. If it’s too cold or not realistic for you to leave, take your cell phone into another room and say you need to make an important call and talk to your support person.

9. Breathe

If you feel anxious or stressed out, escape to the bathroom, and do a five-minute breathing/meditating ritual. Breathe in through your nose to the count of 10 and exhale through your nose to the count of 10. Do this 10 times and you will calm your mind and body.

10. Create a gratitude list

Before you go to your Thanksgiving gathering, think of everything you are truly blessed with this year. Bring it with you to glance at if you start noticing you are feeling bad.

11. Don’t act your age

Play with the kids a lot or spend time talking to elder friends and hearing their stories. This will enrich your day.

12. Opt in or out

If your recovery feels vulnerable right now and you think the holiday might be too difficult, remember that you don’t have to go.

It’s true, you might let some people down. But you can always explain it is important for you to take care of yourself in this way this year. If you don’t think that they’d be amenable to this, or you think that they will accuse you of being self-centered or self-absorbed, don’t offer any explanation that might leave you vulnerable to being shamed or insulted.

Plan for what you will do that evening after you get home. Feeling full can trigger a binge in many people – so plan to do something relaxing when you get home that night and are done eating (e.g. conversation with a good friend, watching a good movie on Netflix, etc.).

13. Plan for the day after

Have an amazing day planned for the day after Thanksgiving. Do something that brings you comfort and pleasure. Plan to connect with a friend, watch a favorite show, read a good book, listen to a favorite podcast, or even spend the day organizing in a loving way. Think of something you really want to do and make plans to actually do it. Having exciting plans will help you feel anticipatory and excited on Thanksgiving Day.


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