Going home for the holidays
For some, the holidays evoke family, connection, and cheer. But, this time of year can be tough for many folks, particularly those in recovery from an eating disorder, substance use disorder, trauma, depression, or other mental health concern. Visiting people or places that bring up uncomfortable memories – or cause discomfort in the moment – can be challenging. For many, the fall season, leading up to the holidays, can elicit anticipatory anxiety.
For those who are trying to heal their relationship with food and their body, holiday gatherings can be a veritable landmine. When families come together, there’s the potential for frequent exchanges about dieting, good versus bad foods, weight loss, and comments on others’ bodies. While diet talk is generally pervasive, it escalates around the holidays. Maybe it’s the cornucopia of food, which can elicit judgments and fears about eating. Maybe it’s that we see friends or family we have’t seen in a while. Regardless of reason, exposure to diet culture at the holidays can cause many to dread the experience of going home and spending time with others,
Defining Cope AHEAD
The DBT skill, Cope Ahead, is relevant as individuals gear up for the holidays. Cope ahead is one of DBT’s emotion regulation skills. Coping ahead means rehearsing a plan ahead of time so that if an emotionally difficult situation arises, you’re able to respond mindfully and skillfully. Often, when triggered, our brains go “offline,” and we’re unable to access a helpful response. Coping ahead supports rehearsing potential responses so that we’re able to use them without much thought in the moment.
Cope Ahead with the Holidays
1. Recognize that your attendance at holiday gatherings is optional. While it might seem you have to go, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of showing up, prioritizing your mental health. Maybe you’re newly sober and know that exposure to relatives imbibing might threaten your early recovery. Maybe the holiday will be hosted in a place that brings back traumatic memories. If you believe that attending an event could cause you to slide, it might be better to sit this one out. The holiday can be just another day on your calendar. Maybe you set aside the day to volunteer, read, see a movie, or spend some time in nature.
2. Bookend the event with enjoyable or calming activities. If you choose to attend, maybe you watch a comedy beforehand and know that you’ll come home later and call a friend or go for a walk. Knowing that you have something to look forward to after the gathering might help you cope.
3. Rehearse some ready-made responses for when emotionally charged conversations arise. Focus on redirecting others and, if this doesn’t work, know that you can always say matter-of-factly, “I’d rather not talk about that” without explanation.
For those in eating disorder recovery, predict that diet talk will surface during the holidays. One option is to ignore or distract from conversations about food and weight. If someone brings up their recent diet or weight loss effort, this can be an opportunity to redirect and set conversational boundaries. You might then ask about their recent travel, how their children or doing, or one of their interests. Another option might be to shut down diet talk directly. You might say, “I get that you want to be talking about your diet, but I’m trying to move away from dieting. Can we focus on something else?” Or you might try, “I find that dieting isn’t effective long-term. Have you heard of intuitive eating?”
If someone comments on your weight, you might answer, “I try not to focus on that. I’d rather focus on what my body does for me and on other aspects of my life.” If someone comments on someone else’s weight (e.g., “Did you notice Grandma lost weight?”), you might offer, “Weight is such a minor aspect of someone’s being. I’d rather focus on other things.”
If you’re particularly close with one of your family members, you might let this person know in advance your preference to avoid certain topics, including diet and weight talk. They might serve as an ally if difficult content surfaces during the event. Similarly, if you’re attending a small gathering with open-minded folks, you might reach out to them beforehand and ask for a ceasefire on specific topics, including negative food and body conversations.
4. Have an escape. It’s important to plan out an escape if things get overwhelming. While that might mean leaving the gathering, it could also mean taking a pause to step outside for some fresh air or taking refuge in the bathroom for a few minutes. These temporary escapes can be a good time to take some deep breaths and ground yourself.
5. Soothe yourself through your senses. Have a favorite scent? It might be a good time to wear it or carry it with you. Maybe you wear a cozy sweater, or take a few minutes aside to listen to a favorite song. Use your senses as a way to soothe and center yourself.
6. Seek out support. Can you identify someone to reach out to for support beforehand and debriefing of anything that transpires? Is there someone you can text during the gathering for additional support? Knowing you have someone in your corner can provide some relief.
7. Conduct a post-mortem. Give yourself credit for taking care of yourself as best you could and for using any coping strategies you employed. Explore what was difficult, what worked and what could use some finessing, and how you might handle similar situations in the future.