By: Loren Gianini, Ph.D.
Spring Break may mean a trip back home to see family and friends, or time spent with classmates on a tropical beach. For individuals in recovery from an eating disorder, however, this break, regardless of the destination, may not be such a vacation.
Here are some ways to anticipate and manage risks that may emerge during Spring Break so that the time off can actually be restorative and recovery-consistent:
Do you and your siblings tend to argue about who gets control of the TV or who gets to borrow the car? Are there challenges you experience around family mealtimes or by virtue of 24/7 access to a stocked pantry? These circumstances may lead to increased risk for restrictive eating, binge eating, or use of unhealthy behaviors like vomiting or excessive exercise. Think through your own personalized list of high risk situations that could come up and devise an action plan. You may want to talk this through with a therapist, a supportive friend, or family members. Figure out what coping skills you can use- taking a break, using some deep breathing, getting out of the house- and make a plan so that when the stressful moment hits, you are prepared.
Comments about Appearance
Many people in recovery from an eating disorder are adjusting to living with a body weight or shape that is different from what they were used to while ill, or different from what they feel is “ideal.” This can heighten body awareness and discomfort. Some well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) family and friends may make comments about the change in your appearance since the last time they saw you- for example, “You’ve gained weight!”, “You look so much healthier!”, etc. Or, their comments on others’ appearances may make you equally uncomfortable. Figure out how you’d like to respond to these types of comments. You might find it helpful to let family know ahead of time (or in the moment a comment is made) that while they may not mean any harm, those types of comments are not helpful for you, and you’d prefer they refrain from commenting on your looks. You might also provide some direction about what types of comments are helpful to you.
Hitting the Road
Soaking up some sun this Spring Break? Then maybe you’re worried about heading to an unfamiliar environment, wearing a bathing suit, or other potentially triggering situations.
Meals and Snacks
You’re away from your dining hall and your normal mealtime routine. You may be waking up and going to bed later than you typically do. Your body’s hunger and fullness cues could be a bit off, especially if you’ve travelled to a different time zone. Making sure that you eat at appropriate intervals and in healthy amounts is essential to keeping your risk for relapse low.
- Explore the grocery and restaurant options at your Spring Break destination online before you head there, and plan out where you will purchase your food.
- Pack some easy to prepare meals or snacks so that if you are in a bind, you always have food on hand.
- Keep track of when you eat and make sure you don’t go more than 4 hours between eating, so that you don’t get too hungry.
- Do you have a supportive friend that you can turn to? Perhaps you can make plans with this friend to eat together even if everyone else is pressuring you to hang out at the beach.
Alcohol has historically been ubiquitous on Spring Break. Aside from the standard risks involved with drinking (e.g., increased chances for dangerous situations to occur, like drunk driving), overindulgence with alcohol carries particular risks for people with eating disorders.
- Drinking to excess lowers inhibitions which could, in turn, lead to a recurrence of binge eating.
- Those with a tendency towards restrictive eating may feel the urge to reduce their food intake as a means of “making up” for the calories they are consuming through alcohol.
- Hangovers might reduce the desire to stick to your meal plan and prompt undereating or overeating.
Wherever possible, moderating your drinking is important. Again, you may find it helpful to confide in a close supportive friend, and remove yourselves from situations in which there is pressure to drink to excess. Come up with some lines you could say if you want to decline a drink, so that you feel comfortable doing so when the time comes.
“Braving” the Bathing Suit
If you’ve traveled to the beach or some other warm destination, swimming or sunbathing is likely on the menu. If you’re feeling nervous about wearing a bathing suit, come prepared with some healthy coping strategies to test out. For example, if you notice that your thoughts are becoming overly self-critical and your emotions are feeling overwhelming, you may find it helpful to engage in some mindfulness exercises or to challenge the unhelpful thoughts. Maybe you can notice aspects of your body’s function, rather than its form, or maybe you can keep tabs on how your body image changesover the hours on the beach (and why). Try to minimize time spent scrutinizing your appearance and schedule in some distracting, pleasurable activities.
Spring Break is intended to be a time to decompress, relax, and hopefully have some fun. While being in recovery from an eating disorder can make managing Spring Break more challenging, coming up with a plan for how you will handle these challenges can be an empowering way to making a commit to yourself and your continued good health.
This post was previously published on The Feed on March 9, 2017.
About the Author: Dr. Gianini is a clinical and research psychologist at the Columbia Center for Eating Disorders. Her current research aims to examine food-related decision-making across the weight spectrum.