Thanksgiving is a time to gather as family or friends to celebrate and reflect on all the good that has occurred during the year, but it’s also mostly about the food. The aftermath of Thanksgiving is usually exclaiming that you’re, “So full,” and retiring the to couch for a nap or to watch football. Regardless of holiday traditions, the holidays can be a challenging time for people in all types of recovery, whether it’s from a drug or alcohol addiction or a co-occurring disorder like a mental health or eating disorder.

The holidays, Thanksgiving especially, are usually centered around consumption — of gifts, alcohol, food or people. It’s a time when you are supposed to feel grateful and reflect on your year and make goals for the upcoming new year while indulging in some treats in the meantime. However, for some people, the pressures of perfection, feelings of loneliness or depression and the stress of family gatherings can make the holidays anything but happy.

While Thanksgiving may be a day of indulgences for the average American, the day can be full of triggers for people with a substance use disorder and co-occurring disorders like an eating disorder. Food and alcohol aren’t necessarily the only triggers that exist for people in recovery, family or personal drama may contribute to the already stressful time. In addition to the normal pressures of the holiday — financial stresses, dealing with family and organizing your calendar— you now have to worry about being perceived as healthy by your family and friends.

How to Manage Triggers

Knowing what your triggers are and how to manage them can be beneficial for anyone in recovery. Some tips for how to manage your triggers can include:

  • Making a plan. It’s recommended to make a plan daily to remain in recovery. Once you create a daily plan and a goal, it’s usually easier to follow the plan and make decisions according to what you wrote down.
  • Distracting yourself. Find someone to talk to or even a relaxing game or app on your phone to distract you from a trigger.
  • Having a support system. Whether it’s from a family member, friend or even your therapist, creating a support system for your recovery is a great coping mechanism for any time of the year but especially during more difficult times, like the holidays.

holding hands around table at Thanksgiving dinner

How to Deal with Eating Disorder Triggers During Thanksgiving

In addition to the common stresses of the holidays, people in recovery with an eating disorder experience increased stress and anxiety around Thanksgiving and it’s not solely because of the food. Food is a trigger for people with an eating disorder, but if you’re in recovery from an eating disorder you may also hear comments about what and how much you’re eating or about your body. Some of the coping skills for people in recovery with an eating disorder are similar to those for people in recovery in general.

For example, having a support system, creating a plan, setting daily goals and distracting yourself are great coping mechanisms for people with eating disorders to use. There are more specific ways to deal with eating disorder triggers and some tips can include:

  • Build a Support Network. The people you chose to help you through these challenging months, will be your guide. An eating disorder can cause you to doubt what you are allowed to eat but just know that it’s OK for you to eat what and how much everyone else is.
  • Follow Your Plan. Even if your disorder makes you feel otherwise, you can eat what you want. You can use conversation to help you remain mindful during the meal and you can gauge your portions and pace with someone to help you eat at a healthy level.
  • You Don’t Have to Avoid Certain Foods. Not only should you remember this but you can write it down as well for a positive affirmation.
  • Your eating disorder is not the boss. You disorder tries to control you and causes you to believe lies about your body. Take some time before the holiday season to work with your treatment team or therapist to learn about the difference between thoughts perpetuated by your eating disorder and your own thoughts. Create a plan with your support team to challenge the thoughts stemming from your eating disorder.
  • Don’t Engage in “Fat Talk”. Your family and friends may casually talk about how many calories they’re going to consume on Thanksgiving or be “more stuffed than the turkey” but you shouldn’t join the conversation. You can either politely ask your loved ones to change the subject, simply join another conversation or help with the preparations and cleanup.
  • Don’t Skip or Compensate for Meals. It’s important to remain on the meal plan that your physician or dietitian created for you. When you know a large meal is coming up, it can be tempting to skip a meal a few days prior but that can be one of the most unhealthy things you can do for your overall health and recovery. If you’re trying to manage binging, skipping meals will only make the desire to binge stronger.
  • Keep Social Media to a Minimum. One of the biggest things you can do during the holidays is to limit the social media pages that may trigger your disorder. Do not follow any diet, fitness or weight loss sites, pages or influencers during this time. You can turn off notifications, unfollow some pages and prepare yourself for the upcoming resurgence of “weight loss” and fitness talk that is associated with the new year.
  • Be Kind to Yourself. It’s important to remember that although you’re trying to manage your urges to binge and purge, it’s OK to experience those urges — they’re not going to immediately disappear. It’s OK to have those feelings and urges as long as you don’t act on them. If you need to write down affirmations on how you’re feeling, don’t hesitate to carry around your journal or use your phone to make notes.

Once you know your triggers and how to manage them, the holidays can become more cheerful. It may still be difficult but by developing a plan and knowing how to implement it, you can feel better about facing the Christmas music. No matter what you’re recovering from, remind yourself that the holidays are a time to spend with family and friends.

If you or someone you know struggles with a substance use and co-occurring disorder, help is available. At The Recovery Village, the staff of professionals offers a number of treatment programs for you to choose from. Call and speak with a representative to learn what treatment program could work for you.