The holidays are a time of joy, but can also be overwhelming for those in recovery due to daily routines and life schedules being disrupted. For individuals struggling with mental health disorders and subsequent co-occurring issues, the added stress of large gatherings for shared meals, the clash of personalities, and various personal struggles can prove difficult to navigate. Many elements of traditional celebrations can be triggering and may lead to relapse in the recovery progress if not properly managed.

In this blog, we educate about common triggers that often stem from past or current traumas, with a focus on those struggling with disordered eating as a result of those traumas. Additional key topics include how family members can help create a more welcoming environment, and tips for maintaining recovery progress during the stress of the season.

Understanding & Identifying Common Triggers

Whether consciously or subconsciously, trauma can often have lasting effects on one’s mental health. These events can include:

  • The loss of a loved one
  • Familial and relational strain, e.g. growing up in a divorced family
  • Abuse
  • Sexual Assault
  • Illness
  • Life transitions, like moving to a new city, changes in professional careers, or a new schooling environment

The traumatic event may have happened many years in the past or could be ongoing—no matter then “when,” daily stressors can trigger disordered eating as a coping mechanism. They are different for everyone, but during the holidays, triggers may include:

  • Comments from friends and family members about diets, body type, body size, weight, or physical appearance
  • Comments that worsen a preoccupation about food and eating, such as “You shouldn’t eat that, it’s bad for you” or “I’m going to have to run an extra mile after I eat this food!”
  • Calorie counts on labels and menus
  • Encounters with certain amounts or types of foods
  • Stressful situations with family members or coworkers
  • Stress at home or in the workplace
  • Different consumable media (like commercials or social media posts) with underlying messaging about physical appearance or eating

How to Prevent Losing Progress Made in Recovery

For those in recovery, it is important to have a plan for the upcoming holidays. While you may have limited access to your care team due to holiday hours, work with them in advance to create a strategy on how to approach your holiday celebrations. Plan to regularly utilize these coping strategies you have learned in treatment and schedule a check-up, or regular check-ins, with your care providers. If there are certain concerns regarding holiday foods, ask a nutritionist or dietician on your care team. They are there to help you strategize your approach to shared meals and eating, so you can enjoy this season.

Furthermore, don’t be afraid to set boundaries for yourself with others. This may mean communicating time limits for events and parties this season, asking friends or family to avoid commenting on eating habits, or even allowing yourself to skip gatherings that may be too triggering. These boundaries will help minimize stress caused by the emotional buildup before, during, and after the events.

While there is no one way to prevent relapse or the loss of important progress, there are a few things that you can implement to help:

  • Establish a routine
  • Aim for a sustainable sleep schedule
  • Continue to take daily medicine or health supplements
  • Find a balance between screen time and other enjoyable activities like shopping, holiday crafts with friends, going to the park
  • Schedule free time into your vacation itinerary
  • Avoid alcohol or other substances during holiday parties

Remember, there is room for enjoyable events that are not centered around sharing a meal or food. Plan other activities with friends and family where food is not the focus and that will cause less stress as you navigate the holidays.

How Friends & Family Can Help Those Recovering

As we enter the holiday season, with unusual schedules and holiday gatherings centered around shared meals, it is helpful for others to be aware of the challenges individuals with eating disorders are facing. While it is impossible to avoid triggers completely, friends and family members of those in recovery can support their loved ones by gently asking what they can do to meet their needs this season.

For example, if you are hosting a large meal to celebrate, reach out to the individual and offer to make them something special or different than what will be offered for the meal. Refrain from making certain triggering comments leading up to or during the meal. This includes avoiding talking about diets, weight, and how much or how little someone is eating, as well as not making comments on people’s size or appearance. Never force or insist someone eat more or less than what is on their plate. If someone declines an invitation to a shared meal, do your best to be understanding, as they may not be at a point in recovery where they can participate

in enjoying the meal. Pushing difficult topics may only make their struggle with their eating disorder harder.

Ways to Manage Seasonal Stress

If you struggle with disordered eating or are worried about facing potential triggers, help ease the stress of the season with these practical stress management techniques:

  • Breathe: When feeling anxious or overwhelmed, focusing on breathing helps the body’s nervous system reset and has a calming effect on both the body and the mind. To try it, breathe deep for a count of 4 and use your diaphragm to inhale. Exhale and then count to 8.
  • Reserve Quiet Time: Take an hour and a half before bed or at some point in the day to do some self-care. Or simply sit and listen to some slow music.
  • Light Movement: Exercise doesn’t have to mean extreme workouts or heavy weightlifting. Studies have shown an easy walk can boost someone’s mood and provide stress relief.
  • Spend Time with Those Who Care: Find a balance between time with friends and time with family to avoid feeling isolated.
  • Practice Daily Gratitude: Studies have proven that writing down what makes you focus on gratitude positively affects the mood and mental health of individuals.

These techniques are effective; however, often there is more to be done to fully meet the needs of someone with an eating disorder.

Wings Recovery Is Here to Help

If you or a loved one is struggling with a traumatic event, coping with holiday-related triggers, or worries over a potential relapse, we are here for you.

Wings Recovery care providers are highly trained in trauma-informed care. We offer many programs and customizable treatments, adjusting as needed in your journey toward recovery.

For more information about our programming, visit our website at https://www.wingsrecovery.org/treatment-approach/ or contact us for help at 1.888.790.9377.

Wings Recovery is here for you this holiday season.