Thanksgiving And Eating Disorders: How Our Biggest Feast Can Be Harmful For Disordered Eaters

family members giving thanks to ...
family members giving thanks to ...

Thanksgiving is a time of feasting and family; outsized in not only i's portions, but in its expectations of familial harmony. And while it's a holiday to celebrate the bounty of our blessings, for many -- particularly disordered eaters -- it can be a stressful reminder of psychological and behavioral patterns that are hard to break under the best of circumstances.

"People need to be mindful that holidays are an evocative, associative time because they are such particular days," says Geneen Roth, author of Lost and Found and Women Food and God. "And so it becomes easy to say things like, 'Last Thanksgiving, things were better.' For example, if you’re not in a relationship and you really want to be and you once were, then unfortunately, what can happen is that your mind can start in on you -- you can build an unhappy story about the holidays that can lead you to eat. We tend to build stories and the stories we build often lead to feelings that lead to eating."

"Freudians would say that people who eat compulsively are literally swallowing their problems -- they're reverting to the earliest, simplest stages of gratification: putting things in their mouths," says Andrew Getzfeld, PhD, an adjunct professor of psychology who specializes in eating disorders at New York University.

Conversely, for restrictive eaters, the sudden lack of control -- either because of the change in environment or a reversion to old family dynamics -- can cause relapsed behavior. "Part of the problem is that the holiday revolves around family, but to me these disorders are family disorders -- they start with and affect families," explains Getzfeld.

But just because the holidays can be challenging for those in recovery or in the throes of disordered eating doesn't mean that there aren't coping mechanisms. Organizations like The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt offer tips on how to make the most of a trying situation. They emphasize sticking with treatment like therapy appointments and journaling and also having a friend or two to call when you're feeling low.

Roth also recommends this thought exercise: what’s the best, kindest thing for you to do right now?

"People often confuse self-kindness with self-indulgence: that huge piece of pie is an indulgence, it's numbing -- it's not a kindness. Particularly if you know you’ll feel a little sick after you eat it," she explains. "Kindness is not just spineless and mushy. It's also awareness and resolve to follow through."

Getzfeld additionally recommends reminding yourself that the difficult situation you find yourself in is finite: "Take one day at a time, remember that it's a time-limited situation, and if for some reason you have relapse, it’s not the end of the world -- it’s situation specific and it doesn’t undo the work you’ve done."

That's echoed in the sentiment of Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh, who last year advised eating disorder survivors to remind themselves that the holiday comes just once a year.

So what should you do if you suspect a loved one is in crisis? Warning signs can be difficult to identify, as Getzfeld points out, because while anorexics may be visibly not eating at the table, bulimics can be in crisis without detection, as they might eat a typical amount with company around and then later binge and purge once everyone's out of the house or asleep.

"The best thing you can do is be sensitive to people’s needs, talk to them and don't take it personally," says Getzfeld.