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Tools and Information for Individuals in Recovery from Anorexia, Bulimia and Binge Eating
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December 7, 2015 by Marion MacDonald

Suggestions for Surviving — and Maybe Even Celebrating — the Holidays

Holiday Survival Guide

The holidays are supposed to be the most joyful time of the year, but they bring with them a long list of unrealistic expectations that create a lot of stress and anxiety, especially for anyone who suffers from an eating disorder. Mirasol staff members met to share their thoughts on healthy ways to celebrate the holidays. We found out that successful strategies run the gamut from diving in head first, to head-long flight! In between are many helpful suggestions for minimizing the stress and maximizing the joy of the holidays, however you choose to spend them.

Mirasol Executive Director Diane Ryan is a big fan of diving into the holidays, but she worries about clients in early recovery who want to go home for the holidays.

"When you go home, it's like you become six years old again. Those are the initial roles that we learn, not only about the holidays, but about how to relate to one another. And then you put a frame around it that says 'everything must be perfect,' and it creates a lot of pressure."

Diane's strategy is to use tools to "keep the joy part and reduce the stress".

"I concentrate on my breathing, and I focus on the heart-warming stories, the acts of kindness and the opportunities to serve."

Primary Therapist Jamelynn Evans suggests that one way to manage expectations around holiday traditions is to remember that "we are meaning-making machines" who have the power to attach new and different meanings to the holidays. She recalls fondly one year when her brother was living in Florida and couldn't fly home until a few days after Christmas. The family decided to postpone Christmas until he arrived – at midnight – and they all stayed up until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, talking and opening presents. "It was so spontaneous," says Jamelynn, "and I have such a fond memory of what that turned into."

Jamelynn recommends shifting some of the emphasis away from food: going for walks, singing, playing music, wrapping gifts, decorating. "We're working toward being more okay with the food, but we don't need to force that to be okay right now."

Of course one of the cornerstones of recovery — especially in early recovery — is following a meal plan.

"To do well, and to feel good about the holiday experience, the client needs to follow the meal plan as closely as possible," Diane says, "but it's very challenging to stay on your meal plan when there are so many different activities, most of them involving food. Families can help by just being understanding and supportive of what the client needs to do."

Fellow dietitian Anne Ganje concurs. "There is so much hustle and bustle, and so much going on during the holidays. This is not the time to experiment or challenge ourselves. Even if you don't come from a dysfunctional family, you can be triggered by the anxiety of those around you. If a client needs to just follow the basic meal plan during the holiday season, that is 100% okay. There will be plenty of time after the holidays to process everything that happened and to offer opportunities to challenge meal plans, or to do things differently."

"Food aside, it's important to recognize that this is a stressful time of year for most people — even those who don't have an eating disorder," says Jamelynn. "This may not be the best time to engage in deep discussions about future plans for career or school. It might be better to keep it a bit lighter and simpler when you do come together."

At Mirasol, we talk a lot about the importance of setting intentions, and Clinical Director Maeve Shaughnessy thinks this may be the key to getting the most out of the holidays.

"Before going to family events, take some quiet time to think about your priorities and about what's important to you, so you don't get overwhelmed."

Art Therapist Rachel Nelson offers the following tips for how to take care during the holidays:

· Since it can be a stressful time around family, I'm going to make an intention to have fun, and to stay focused on that.

· I will find three positive aspects of family members to focus on.

· I think having those things to focus on will relieve my mind from bringing past frustrations forward.

"Spending time outside is also a really good thing to do," says Diane, who championed the development of Mirasol's robust adventure therapy program. "I like to take the clients hiking during the holidays. It's a nice time of year here in the desert."

Many embrace the spirituality of this season, and spirituality can take many different forms. For Webmaster and Wilderness Guide Marion MacDonald, this time of year is all about the change of seasons and the return of the light.

"The holidays usually find us camped somewhere in the desert, watching the sun rise on the shortest day of the year, and enjoying the smell of a crackling mesquite fire and a little crispness in the air. What I like most about the holidays is the quiet. Everything seems to slow down between Christmas and New Years – people are calmer, the traffic slows down. It's a time to think about where you've been this past year, and where you want to go in the next one."

Maeve was surprised to hear the words "holidays" and "quiet" in the same sentence!

"I thrive on that quiet and reserved peace, but I can really get caught up in the hustle bustle, and it's important for me to set that intention and remind myself that it can be a quiet time as well."

Ann is fascinated by the different ways that people recharge. For her, this time of year is when most other people are ready to be social and connected.

"There's a solid month where people who would usually say 'no' are saying 'yes' to invitations to do something socially – so I love this time of year!"

At the far end of the spectrum, Diane confesses that in her younger days she used to get a temporary job at the mall. "I loved the chaos," she says, and she recommends planning some activities for early January to avoid a post-holiday let-down.

What about clients who are spending the holidays in treatment?

"Many people might think that it would be the worst thing in the world to be in treatment at this time of year," says Diane. "But my experience over the years is that it's really quite special for the people who are. Anybody who is in treatment has had some challenging family interactions, so being in treatment takes all of the difficulties of being in early recovery off the table and allows them to continue doing their work."

"It can be a big relief to clients to be in treatment, because we can validate what they're experiencing," Jamelynn concludes. "The truth is that it's okay to be sad, and we all do think about certain things that we may be missing. But oftentimes what we want and what we need are different. We may want to be home, but treatment may be the best place for right now. I tell my clients that they're setting themselves up for future holidays that will look much different from the way you've spent your holidays in the past."

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