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For some the holidays are a joyous time of year which comes with endless chances to come together, celebrate and share food. But for those with disordered eating or in recovery from eating disorders, all of these “celebrations” can be a minefield of triggers.
Starting with Halloween and rolling through the New Year, America parades out all the food it has denied itself for a year. (Side Note: American culture has a disordered relationship with food due to its obsession with restriction and binging. We classically binge from Halloween ‘til the New Year then everyone goes on a diet as a resolution aka restriction). And for those who struggle with eating disorders, this tension is amplified ten fold because we are already working with our own restrictions, thoughts and beliefs about food, when the holidays turn up the volume. Especially, in the time of Covid since everyone is already taxed with thousands of other worries.
Holidays can produce intensified feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety and tension with your families and friends. While there is no surefire way to make it through the holidays without these feelings, there are ways to better support yourself.
Ideas for Support:
- Talk with your care team or mental health provider: It is a great way to develop a plan, discuss potential stressors and triggers and have a supportive ear.
- Holidays aren’t all about food: This can be hard to remember, but we celebrate for many other reasons, try to shift the focus to other parts of the holidays you enjoy: seeing family and friends, signing, lights, and giving to others.
- Decrease stress by adding structure: Structure is a great way to adhere to your recovery goals while still celebrating the holidays, especially if you currently have structured meal times. Make lists to limit time in the grocery store or out shopping.
- Give yourself permission to eat: Sometimes I advise people to use Brene Brown’s trick of writing themselves a permission slip to hold in their pockets.
- Ask a family member or friend for support: If you get overwhelmed or start to panic, utilize this person for support. Share your structure with them, so they know the plan and can help with any deviations. Knowing you have someone in your corner can be a game changer.
- Avoid overbooking yourself: This is one place where Covid-19 might be a helpful ally, but know that there is such a thing as “zoom fatigue”. Lot’s of virtual contact can be draining and is missing the natural hormonal release of face-to-face interactions, so it is less rewarding to our brains. Save some time for you to continue or implement a regime of self-care.
Finally, remember that an “ideal weight” doesn’t exist. Food isn’t good or bad. There is room for all foods in a healthy diet and your worth doesn’t depend on your weight or the size of your body. Your worth is inalienable.
Holidays are meant to be celebrations of life and family, so how can you reframe thoughts and actions to make it feel like a true celebration? While food is a big part of them, it is not the only part of them. And these supports might prove to be so helpful, you can continue to use them year round.
Do you need more support that you didn’t see in this blog? Comment below and I’ll reach out with more ideas!
If food wasn’t a part of our cultural and social identity, we wouldn’t label foods ‘ethnic’, ‘traditional’, ‘mexican’, ‘asian’, ‘classic’, ‘indian’, ‘chinese’ or ‘comfort food’. We wouldn’t have ritualistic food like turkey on Thanksgiving, birthday cakes or Christmas ham. We’d simply refer to it with non-emotional and non-descriptive identifiers.
Which, side note, diet culture is always trying to do. Diets or “lifestyle changes” try to condition us to think of food as just ‘calories’ or ‘fuel’ and that our attaching of emotionality to food is the problem that needs to be fixed. There is a concerted effort to strip food of identity and emotionality because homogenization and conformity is the ultimate goal of dieting. Everyone needs to look the same and eat the same in order to be loved.
However, truth is: all eating is emotional because of food’s inextricable role in survival, society and culture.
Imagine, you were unable to eat for an entire day and begin to feel irritable. This is a biological and emotional reaction to food scarcity. It is well known by the fasting community that the longer you fast, the worse your sleep gets, this is a biological panic in your body. Stress hormones are pumping and trying to keep you awake to hunt for food. Thus creating an emotional response in the faster to be on alert.
Food is and always will be emotional because survival is emotional.
Outside of survival, more symbolically food is a cultural expression of love. Our earliest association with food is something most of us don’t remember, but as infants went we became hungry we cried and a caregiver fed us. Along with the soothing of food, they often held you close and potentially rocked you, spoke calmly to you, kissed you. In the human brain, these events repeatedly happening together wires food with love.
“Food is almost always shared,” writes anthropologist Robin Fox in the article Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective. “people eat together; mealtimes are events when the whole family or settlement or village comes together. Food is an occasion for sharing… for the expression of altruism” (2014, pg. 1).
Highlighting that food now and always is inherently social. Sharing food with others has always been an act of peace and good will. Status could and can be ascertained by how food is portioned or distributed.
If we look at diet culture’s rhetoric, all we have to do is ask: Who is allowed to eat without restraint? What status is given to those who can eat without restraint or being shamed for what they eat? And pretty quickly, you stumble onto the concept of thin privilege. Does this mean thin people don’t suffer from the harsh rhetoric and status distribution of diet culture? No. They are often in a perpetual state of weight gain, which underscores the ultimate goal of dieting and diet culture: homogenization and conformity.
If the food you cook can portray the culture you are from, it is more than just calories. If the amount of food you eat or don’t eat can illustrate your status, it is more than just fuel. If what and how you eat can determine if you are accepted or rejected by a society, food is utterly emotional because it securely attaches you to belonging and love.
I’d love to hear from you! What are your cultural traditions around food? What stories did you hear about food, culture, emotions and love as you were growing up? What food makes you feel loved?
With everything going on in our country right now, it is hard to not feel stressed, taxed or overwhelmed, especially those in caregiving positions. Our nation, as a community, is struggling with compassion fatigue as we are bombarded daily with one tragedy after another. I hope this can be a resource to remind you this is a normal feeling and we’re all experiencing it right now. I, myself, have begun to see the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue.
So, I am writing this post to remind myself and support others. Often compassion fatigue can bring up feelings of shame or guilt for “not doing enough”, but I keep returning to this quote:
“I had never been told that empathy is a finite resource. You can run out. As a normal, psychological response, you cannot give of yourself again and again and again without replenishing.” – Emmett Fitzgerld
Though he names empathy – compassion is empathy in action, so this is very much a description of how compassion fatigue materializes in our lives.
What is compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is the phenomenon when the helpers in the world: therapist, teachers, caregivers, nurses, doctors, etc… experience what is called secondary trauma. The persistent demand of caring for others overtime wears on the emotional fabric of those helping.
Despite what people often think, compassion fatigue is not the same as burnout. Burnout happens over time when the demands on oneself outweigh one’s resources or ability to cope. It is hard to reverse or recover from burnout without the complete cessation of your workload.
However, compassion fatigue happens more suddenly, but can be prevented or reversed through emotional support and structured self-care.
Signs & Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue:
It has been noted in research that the signs and symptoms helpers experience often mirror the symptoms of the victims they are caring for.
- Sadness, Greif
- Depression & anxiety
- Dread, horror, fear
- Vivid nightmares, trouble sleeping
- Flashbacks to their own trauma
- Numbing and avoidance
- Viewing the world as unsafe
- Poor self-esteem
- Survivors guilt or guilt for enjoying life
Steps to help prevent or reverse Compassion Fatigue:
Typically helpers developed their passion to help due to their own experiences with similar traumas. This can make compassion fatigue more likely for those helpers whose own trauma is triggered by those they are caring for. It is especially important that those helpers have structured self-care and are acutely self-aware.
- Structured Self-Care – this means making self-care non-negotiable, like you would a doctor’s appointment. The more routine and consistent it can be, the better. Self-care can look like: hobbies, support groups, yoga classes, alone time, or anything else that helps you recharge.
- Quality Sleep – this can feel like it is not in your control, but there are things that help improve your sleep quality and quantity. Ritualizing a nighttime routine. This psychologically prepares your body for bed. A hot bath or shower before bed. The drastic drop in temperature when you get out simulates what happens during sleep. Keeping the temperature in your bedroom cool. Bodies sleep more soundly in cooler temperatures. Remove electronics from the bedroom, not only because of the blue light which makes us think it is daytime, but the content on the news can trigger anxiety. Listen to a sleep medication. Humans fall asleep faster to the sound of human voices.
- Listening to music – particularly slow, relaxing music, but whatever music relaxes you and helps cue your brain and body that you’re safe.
- Spend time in nature – research shows that numerous things in nature calm our bodies and brains. Spending time connected to the wider world can give perspective. Taking in the beauty of the natural world often brings up feelings of gratitude or appreciation. The earth’s electromagnetic field has been shown to relax our own energy fields.
If you are already experiencing compassion fatigue, this list of to-dos might feel like I’m piling onto your already maxed out plate. So, take it slow. Choose the easiest one on the list and try to be consistent. Ask for help from family and friends in keeping to your self-care routine. If you have a therapist, ask them to support you.
Shameless plug, follow me on IG because every Saturday I post self-care ideas, which can be a helpful reminder that your own care matters.
Who Benefits From You Hating Your Body?
Diet Culture and Capitalism
Maybe you’re not yet sold on Health At Every Size or Intuitive Eating, but are tired of the constant cycles of dieting. So, let’s take a moment to objectively deconstruct the effectiveness of dieting.
The stated goal of dieting is thinness. However, research shows 95-98% of people who go on a diet, gain the weight back and more over time. But research aside, if diets truly worked you would only need one and yet every January millions commit yet again to some form of restrictive eating behavior.
So, if diets don’t work, why are we bombarded with ads, products, eating prescriptions that claim they do?
Diet Culture is the idea that one’s pursuit of thinness is not only noble, but required to be considered worthy of love and social acceptance. It is built on the idea that everyone could be thin if they tried hard enough. This separates bodies into two camps:
- People who are fat, who are desperately trying to become thin.
- People who are thin, who are desperately trying to stay that way.
This fear of being fat (fatphobia) is due to the societal treatment of fat people. We have all experienced the shame and guilt associated with eating “bad food” or skipping a workout no matter our body size.
So, if diet culture is stressful for all body sizes than diet culture is more about control than “healthy habits”.
The diet and weight loss industry is a $72 billion dollar enterprise with apps, at home workouts, gyms, to-go meals and supplements. In order for their business model to continue to make profits, diets can’t work. You can’t love your body. You have to get your body back and you have to be “addicted” to food because they couldn’t sell you the fix otherwise. You can go to this web-site to find more information about this culture.
Diet culture also completely denies biology and the fact that humans would have diverse bodies even if we all ate and exercised the same because 80% of body size and density is genetically predetermined. They would struggle to convince you your “lifestyle” needed to change so you could finally make it to the “ideal weight” if they admitted that there is no “ideal weight”.
This is by no means an anti-capitalism blog post, but unbridled capitalism with no regard for the wellbeing for the humans on the other side of their bottom line is incredibly harmful. Not only to that person, but also our society. People who are busy dieting their way to worth and acceptance aren’t innovating the next invention, or focusing on building their small business, or running for political office. They aren’t focused on raising children who have high self esteem and a healthy relationship with food and body because the diet industry depends on those children becoming chronic dieters. And the research is very clear on this point, parents who are preoccupied with food and body condition their children to be preoccupied with food and body.
So, if HAES and Intuitive Eating aren’t for you, that is fine as per Geekshealth. We all have to find what works for us and our body. But, diet culture doesn’t care about your health, wellbeing or family. They care about your money and in order to get repeat business they need you to fail. They need you to think you’re flawed. They need you and your children to see their perfectly normal bodies as broken.
Flip the script and finally break the cycle.
You are not broken. No body is superior to another.
Though many cities and towns have slowly begun to open up, almost nothing feels “normal”. This pandemic has pulled back the curtain and revealed just how delicate our infrastructure really is in America. Both our physical needs – supply chains, local government structures, the ability to provide struggling families with food, shelter and financial assistance. And our emotional needs – systems to support mental health for all populations in America.
The daily onslaught of uncertainty, grief, financial instability, food scarcity, isolation, anger, and thousands of other emotions is traumatic. When so much is happening so fast, it is hard for our brains to cope. (Remember our brains didn’t evolve with the speed of scope of social media in mind). Our emotional stores and physical stores seemed to be running on empty.
It is hard on a normal day in America where diet culture and diet talk runs rampant, to work through your relationship with food and body, but add in food scarcity, loss of routine and increasing anxiety and working through disordered eating seems impossible. Not to mention, the explosion of America’s troubled relationship with food and exercise on social media. Fatphobic fears of “gaining weight during quarantine” or the pressure to use every minute of every day at home to “do something productive”. (As if surviving a pandemic isn’t productive).
All of this and the isolation of social distancing, is a perfect set up to develop or worsen a disordered relationship with food. People struggling with eating disorders before the pandemic already had these thoughts, ideas and fears playing on repeat in their minds. Now it looks like “proof” to our eating disorder selves that we were “right” to have all of these concerns. However, this is not true. Ratcheting up control of your food is a natural reaction to feeling a “loss of control”.
So, how do you handle all of this?
Connection is one of the best anecdotes. Connect with an eating disorder mental health professional. Connect with your family and friends in safe and responsible ways. Call people, write people, send smoke signals if you have to, but remember you are not alone in this. There are people who love you and want to support you, and they probably would benefit from your love and support too!
Decrease your social media – or be really strategic. The more time we spend alone the more time we spend scrolling. However, algorithms don’t care about your mental health. They care about “clickability”, so your feed is curated to show you things they know you’ll click, watch and like (which is often things that reinforce our fears and anxieties). So, clean up your social stream or detox from it all together. Be conscious of what you like, watch or share because the platform will show you more of that.
And if you take nothing else away from this please know you matter and you are not alone in this struggle. Millions of Americans, whether diagnosed with an eating disorder or not, are turning to disordered eating and disordered exercise habits to try and manage this traumatic event. Reach out, normalize and find someone you can talk to.
Covid-19 has not only brought about immense loss of life, thousands of loved ones gone too soon, but it has also restructured our daily lives and doled out a lot of disappointment, economic instability and pulled back the veil on several festering wounds in our societal structure. And the rapidity of all this change has left a lot of us reeling.
In a matter of months, this pandemic completely changed the way we operate within our society: working from home, masking up before entering buildings or standing on spacing dots at the grocery store, meetings, birthdays and holidays being held online, staring a people through plexiglass and face shields, and avoiding all close contact with anyone you’re not quarantining with. Not to mention, the cancellation of sports games, concerts, vacations, family reunions, summer camps and so many more events we were looking forward to.
Throughout all this change, I have watched the world grieve all of these losses. The stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) are everywhere throughout the national and global dialogue about this pandemic. It is important to note that the stages of grief are not linear for most people. Although grief is universal, the experience of grief is unique to the griever. Someone can experience all stages one minute, only to start back a denial later that night, while someone else may never get past denial.
So, what do you do?
1.) Try to name and identify the emotions that you are having. It can help lessen the impact once you shine light on your experience, but it might not go away.
2.) So, it is also important to allow the feeling you’re feeling. Pain, disappointment, grief, depression, are all part of the human experience and feeling them, though uncomfortable, can allow them to process.
3.) Develop a practice of self-compassion. Grief can be slippery and elusive to pin down, so we can sometimes feel like we’ve lost control. This can cause deep depression and sadness in some, while in others it produces a need to control more of their environment, body and life to produce a sense of security. Both are completely understandable reactions.
People often say “time heals grief”, but I haven’t found that to be true. Grief can often reformat the perception we have about the world, our mortality, and prioritize what truly matters to us. Whenever we experience loss, the word “forever” gets an updated definition.
Personally, I think of grief like a chain wrapped around a tree (stay with me here, I promise it’ll make sense). Loggers often leave the chains they use wrapped around trees in the woods. Overtime, that resilient tree grows around the chain, eventually consuming it entirely within it’s being.
Grief is that chain. In the beginning, the grief you experience is a very prominent part of your life. The hurt is constantly visible to you and maybe even to your loved ones around you. But over time, your life continues and you begin to grow around your grief. It doesn’t go away and you are forever altered, but it decreases in pain and prominence. And because you are resilient, it may be a beautiful driving force for you to cherish the life you do have and prioritize the things most important to you.
Grief is hard, but can be a powerful facilitator of change.
I’m sitting in the same coffee shop where I spent hours upon hours staring at my computer screen, often stuck on a sentence or a concept. It’s a cold snowy winter morning, the chill hitting my face each time the door opens and closes. I’m right back where I was in late 2018, staring at my computer screen, mind hijacked. I check social media, I check email, I do anything possible to not pick up my pencil.
I haven’t done much writing since hitting the ‘submit’ button on the manuscript to my book The Clinical Guide to Fertility, Motherhood and Eating Disorders: From Shame to Self-Acceptance.
To be honest, I’ve avoided it at all costs.
Each time I think of blogging or journaling my brain shuts down or wants to distract me to do something else (I cannot tell you how many levels of Tetris I’ve mastered in the past few months!). A friend said to me the other day: “well, that’s a trauma response for ya.”
While writing a book fits into a minor form of trauma, my brain may register the idea of picking up my pen and paper the same way as it would returning to the scene of a traumatic experience such as an assault or a car accident. The neurons in my brain are firing in an idential way: danger, alert, potential harm!
My experience writing and then publishing my book in 2019 delved deep into vulnerable and insecure territory at times. My perfectionist reared her forceful head quite a bit and I felt like completing the manuscript incurred comparable pain and patience as being in labor and giving birth to my daughter did 🙂
However, I’m back here over a year later revisiting my old friend: the written word.
I can’t help but think about how this feels similar to re-engaging in eating disorder recovery after some time away from it or after a lapse.
A plethora of shame, guilt, embarrassment and negative self talk can surface during the recovery process. The eating disorder voice may notice that you are struggling and try to pull you back into its deep, dark grip.
I recently had a client tearfully share “I’m so afraid of acknowledging that I’ve made progress because I fear the ED raging up and trying to get me back to the miserable place I was.”
I assured her that there is no way she could go all the way back in the trenches, as she has developed a well of self-awareness and strength that can never dry up.
Perhaps you can relate? Maybe you have felt yourself slip in your recovery and are too ashamed to call your therapist or admit this to your partner. Significant life transitions such as moving to a new house or state, getting married, having a child, relationship changes such as divorce, or a losing a pet or family member are times when one is more vulnerable to the age-old coping mechanism of disordered eating to resurface.
Just as I have sat down to write this because I know deep down that writing is a part of my being that I do not want to abandon, I am certain that you can take one step to coming back to your recovery.
- Calling your therapist or searching for a therapist
- Telling your partner, mother, daughter or friend that you are struggling
- Acknowledging that recovery is HARD and that lapses are normal
- Re-engaging in a recovery-focused activity such as writing, reading or mindful walks
- Throwing out anything that reminds you of your ED: the scale, your “eating disorder clothes”, magazines or images that trigger you
- ……what do you have to add?
I’m not going to promise that I’m fully ready to write regularly again. Writing this was a mixture of pleasure and resistance. However, I can assure you that as I remind myself that my mind always (always!) tells me that vulnerable experiences will be harder than they truly are, I will gradually invite myself to come back to my writing. With ZERO expectations, contracts, timelines, or deadlines 🙂
Your recovery is your own. Try giving yourself the same grace to go about it at your pace and style as we all know that it won’t be sustainable unless it’s born of your well of resiliency.