The holiday season often brings up so much stress and challenges for folks in eating disorder recovery. What is supposed to be a very happy time of year can get clouded with intrusive thoughts related to food and body. With the increase in exposure to challenge foods, diet/weight talk with the New Year approaching and increased time with family members who may be emotionally activating– it’s the perfect storm for extra stress in recovery.
Then, there’s the pressure of family photos. It seems like everyone wants to take them. You might even get a guilt trip if you refuse. This can be a huge trigger when struggling with body image; so let’s talk about some practical tips to help you cope with the dreaded holiday photo bomb.
#1: I think it is super important to first ask yourself what is best for your current stage of recovery. Are you in a place where you can tolerate the distress of seeing photos of yourself you do not like without it impacting food choices or compensatory behaviors (exercise, laxative use, purging, etc)? Or, would the distress likely lead to disordered behaviors with food and body? If you feel like you can tolerate it, it can be a really good exposure challenge to take the photos and practice accepting the body image discomfort without acting on ED urges. If you do not have the emotional capacity and feel like it would derail recovery even more- it might be best to wait until next year. It’s okay to set boundaries and let loved ones know in advance that you do not want your photo taken. Do what will move you forward in recovery, not backwards. There will always be more time for photos!
#2 Decide if you actually want to document the memory based on values: how do you want to look back on this holiday? What’s the family dynamic like? Mostly positive or mostly negative? If your family is experiencing lots of turmoil, or worse, if there is a history of emotional or physical abuse, it makes sense that you wouldn’t necessarily want to take photos and throw on a happy face. If you feel like you might regret NOT taking them and things are generally feeling safe in the family, challenging yourself to take the photo can be a good step forward in recovery. Make the choice dependent on YOUR values and feelings. As eating disorder sufferers, we are used to setting aside our feelings and needs for the comfort of others- this could be a chance to assert your needs.
#3 If you decide to move forward with taking family photos, practice focusing on how you felt connecting with family/friends vs. your physical appearance in the photos. Expect that there will be something your ED does not like, allow those thoughts and feelings to be there while refocusing your attention on what matters most to you: connecting and making memories with your family and friends. Give yourself compassion for however you feel, this one is really hard.
#4 Identify accommodations to make this experience more manageable. Plan ahead by allowing enough time to find size inclusive outfits that feel comfy and that you like- don’t wait until the day of to find a comfy outfit. This can lead to so much mental stress. Decide where you are most comfortable standing or sitting in the photo ahead of time. It’s okay if you aren’t ready for your entire body to be in the photo- perhaps standing behind someone and having your face in the photo feels the most accessible. Finally, have a plan with yourself about how much time you’ll spend reviewing the photos. Because our brains are wired to focus on the negative, the less time spent scrutinizing yourself, the better. Allowing yourself to glance at them briefly and then having a coping plan for after may help. Generally, distraction is a really helpful tool in this scenario.
5: Choose an affirmation that reminds you to stay recovery focused. Affirmations don’t work for everyone, but if they work for you, find one that you can use to ground yourself with when those negative body image thoughts come up.
“I wasn’t born hating my body, I was conditioned to feel this way.”
“I’m uncomfortable but I’m not in danger. ”
“I will look back and be proud of myself for taking the photo.”
“I am my own worst critic, everyone else is more focused on themselves.”
“I am more than my appearance.”
“I don’t have to love my body to treat it with kindness.”
“Every time I do an exposure like this, I am one step closer to freedom.”
I hope these tips help you or a loved one get through holiday photos with a little more ease. If you or someone you know needs support, my virtual therapy practice provides Eating Disorder and Body Image therapy and we would be honored to support you! Reach out for a free 15 minute consultation today.