A survival guide to navigating the holidays while in recovery

by Eat, Health

The festive season can be a particularly overwhelming time of year if you’re in recovery from an eating disorder or hypothalamic amenorrhea… With all the excitement and celebrations comes endless social events revolving around food, more pressure to overcome your fears and rules around food and drinks, less time for exercising, and a host of other challenges.

So if this time of year causes you stress, fear or anxiety, don’t beat yourself up! You’re absolutely not alone in feeling this way.

However, if you’ve got the right strategies under your belt, it can be a really great opportunity to push yourself out of your comfort zone, and prove just how capable you are of overcoming the ED voice in your head… 

So, are you ready to embrace the holidays and see just how much progress you’ve made on your recovery journey? To help support you, we’ve rounded up our survival guide to help you navigate and conquer any obstacles that arise along the way!

What to do when your friends want to catch up for a Christmas party, but the voice of ED says no…

The eating disorder voice you’ve likely become so familiar with by now thrives on isolating you. It loves when you’re lonely, or actively shutting out your loved ones. After all, the smaller your world becomes, and the less time and energy you spend on other people, the more attention you dedicate to your food rules, fears and habits.

As the holidays approach, naturally so too do the invitations and social events. Everyone wants to celebrate the year that was, enjoy some well-deserved time off work, and just let their hair down! But often the ED voice tries to hold you back from joining them…

So if you find yourself saying no to invite after invite – especially when you desperately want to say yes but you’re too afraid or anxious to do so – know that you’re not alone. But now is the time to separate yourself from your thoughts.

It’s a difficult idea to comprehend, but understand that you are not your thoughts. Your thoughts, and the ED voice, are your subconscious, often working against you! But you are stronger than your thoughts, and you can control them. Notice when it’s the ED voice making you decline social invitations, and simply observe. Don’t judge yourself, just notice why you’re saying no.

And then… Dive in the deep end, and say yes! If it’s just the thoughts and that voice holding you back, choose to be stronger. Consider this: will you look back in a week, or a month, and wish you celebrated this time with your friends? Isn’t this the entire goal of recovery; to regain the freedom to enjoy your life and connections with loved ones?

If this is something you truly value, then there’s no better time to commit to pushing through the discomfort that saying yes may cause. We guarantee, on the other side of discomfort lies fun, memories, freedom, joy. And that is worth fighting for. So fight that voice in your head, recognise your thoughts are not the deepest reflection of your true self and your values, and be stronger than those thoughts!

What to do when you feel guilty after eating a festive meal…

Naturally, with the festivities comes exposure to foods and drinks you wouldn’t normally “allow” yourself to indulge in. It comes with cocktails and Christmas pudding and mince pies and candy canes.

While in the moment you might feel able to overcome your food rules and restrictions, you may experience feelings of guilt and shame later on, after indulging in these festive foods and treats.

So what do you do if this happens? Most importantly, do not restrict your food intake or food choices going forwards to “compensate”. You never need to “make up for” overindulging or enjoying some “less nutritious” food and drink! The worst thing you can do is to restrict out of guilt, as this is a one-way ticket to the binge-restrict cycle many of you know all too well.

Instead, sit with the discomfort and guilt. Ask yourself: will that meal or treat really make that much difference to my health? Did it serve me in other ways, for example by giving me pleasure and joy, even if it wasn’t the most nutrient-dense option? 

The truth is, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with indulging! Feeding your soul and mind is just as important as feeding your body! A key focus in recovery is giving yourself unconditional permission to eat (and enjoy!) all foods without needing to compensate later on, so now is the perfect time to work towards this. 

Accept that this may cause discomfort and guilt initially, but you can get through it! Commit to the process, and know that you are strong enough to overcome the guilt, and move forward in your day without the need to change any other behaviours or eating patterns.

What to do when you don’t have the time or energy to workout…

You might also find you have less time or energy to workout during the festive season. Late nights, social events, and a busy calendar can leave you needing a lie in, or simply with no time to spare.

So what do you do if you find yourself in this situation? Be okay with rest! Let’s shift your mentality around rest to view it as a critical, productive part of your routine! Rest doesn’t need to be scary or overwhelming, or make you feel lazy and ashamed. Instead, think of it as a way to refill your own cup, so that you have the energy to pour into the cups of your loved ones!

This time of year is such a beautiful time for connecting with those you love, so you want to show up as your best self. And this involves being present, energised and enthusiastic! In order to do so, you need your rest.

So if you’re struggling to come to terms with the idea of taking a break from exercise, remember that rest is critical and it’s healthy. You need to give your body the nourishment it needs – and taking a few days off the gym is an important element of this.

Remember, you’ll be able to get back to the gym in the future! But under no circumstances do you need to “burn off” or “earn” your food by sweating it out in the gym, so a rest day (or several!) is perfectly okay (and encouraged) any time at all.

What to do when you’re offered a cheeky cocktail…

Alcohol can be a tricky one when you’re in recovery. For so many people, alcohol represents “empty calories”, or a significant threat to the ED voice in your head… But what if you flipped the switch, and tried to enjoy a cheeky cocktail or two to celebrate and truly be in the moment this festive season?

While we’re not saying go out and get blind, it’s completely okay to enjoy a glass of red or a spicy margs (or two!) on a night out. In fact, it can help you relax, loosen up, and enjoy your evening! If you’re offered a drink, but find yourself saying no out of habit or guilt, can you push yourself to say yes instead?

Savour the taste, and enjoy the ability to be able to lean in and appreciate food and drink purely for the pleasure it can bring – not for any nutritional value or need to fuel your body. There are so many more reasons to eat and drink than to simply nourish and fuel your body – and pleasure is one of them! Socialising and connection is another… so if you want to have a cocktail to connect with your loved ones and share in the experience together, go for gold! Just be sure to stay hydrated and drink plenty of water at the same time, to prevent the unwanted hangover the next day…

What to do when you’re just plain overwhelmed…

Are the endless social events, pressure to overcome food rules, and the pestering urgency of the ED voice too much to handle? That’s okay, you’re not alone! So many people find this time of year overwhelming, so it’s important to take some time to yourself in amongst the busyness, to rechange, relax and restore. 

Be sure to schedule in some self care time amidst all the chaos. Allow yourself the space to reflect on how you’re feeling, and how you’re experiencing all the things that come with the holiday festivities. Reflect on your wins – did you have a mince pie for dessert at your work Christmas party? Maybe you took a week off the gym and didn’t need to compensate with your food choices? Or you allowed yourself a cheeky margs at dinner with the girls? Whatever your win, make sure you give yourself the credit you deserve for pushing through the discomfort and making recovery-aligned choices!

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s okay to say no to an event and spend the night on the couch with a good Christmas film instead (The Holiday, anyone?!). Listen to your body and mind, and put your needs first. Your friends and family will understand if you’re open about needing some time out.

But once you’re rested and restored, get back out there! Make the most of this time of year – it’s exciting and full of opportunities for fun and connection!

There’s no doubt about it, the festive period can be manic, overwhelming and intense. But if you can push through these emotions, you might find you can really enjoy this period. Can you think of it as a challenge? The opportunity to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, and find comfort in a sea of discomfort?

Take the time to celebrate your wins, rest when needed, and don’t be afraid to say no when you need some time out, but also try to lean into the fun moments shared with loved ones. Be present, and practice living the life you’re fighting for on your recovery journey – one of freedom, presence, joy and liberation! You are so strong, you can do this!

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Sarah King

Sarah King

Hi future friends, I’m Sarah King, an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and health coach.

Science, not trends is the foundation of my approach. By nourishing the body and mind with scientific facts we can build foundations for a life of realness, not just wellness.