If you are newly binge-free, or trying to stop binge eating, you may be wondering how to avoid holiday binges. First, I want you to know that you can avoid binge eating regardless of the date on the calendar. There actually isn’t anything special you need to do or not do during the holidays. The path to recovery is the same every day: You need to dismiss urges to binge whenever they come up, and you need eat adequately. If you are new to the Brain over Binge approach, and you want to learn more about these two recovery goals, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics.
Even though avoiding a holiday binge is fundamentally the same as avoiding a binge at any other time, it’s helpful to be aware of issues that may come up. The holidays may bring some additional or different challenges in binge eating recovery, and this post will give you guidance on challenges relating to holiday decision-making.
Before I get into today’s topic, I want to mention briefly what I think is the most important thing to be aware of during the holidays:
Don’t Fall for “Binge Now During the Holidays, and Quit in the New Year” Thoughts
At some point before the end of the year, your lower brain may produce a thought like this: “Well, it’s so close to the end of the year, you can just binge now and then quit for good on January 1st.” This is neurological junk. This thought doesn’t speak your truth. You want to be binge-free now, this year, this holiday season. If you are aware that a resolution thought like this will likely come up, you’ll be more prepared to recognize it when it does—and most importantly, you’ll be prepared to dismiss it. The lower brain will always try to encourage you to binge “one last time” and come up with a justification for it. The holiday might be some of your lower brain’s favorite justifications for binges. If you want more help with this, you can listen to Episode 14: Overcome “One Last Time” Thoughts to Quit Binge Eating.
Saying Yes or No During the Holidays
Now, I’m going to move on to the topic of the blog post, which is stop letting holiday choices lead to holiday binges. Basically, I want to tell you that you can keep your yes’s and no’s to holiday events, obligations, responsibilities, and holiday foods separate from your yes’s and no’s to binge eating. I know this may sound a little confusing, but as I explain what I mean, I hope you will find this advice helpful.
It is a time of year when there are ample opportunities to put many more items on your To Do list—both at work and at home. There is usually pressure to be more closely involved in your community, with your co-workers, and with your family and friends. All of this involvement and connection can be wonderful, but as everyone knows, it can bring a fair amount of stress as well.
Binge Eating Can Become Connected with Holiday Stress
For those who binge, there can sometimes be a strong association between stress and binge eating, so that an increase in events and obligations on the calendar also leads to an increase in urges to binge. In addition, other factors such as social anxiety, the presence of certain foods at holiday events, and conversations about dieting at holiday meals may have become connected to the binge eating habit over time; so that now, binge urges automatically arise in those situations.
How those associations and connections developed varies from person to person; but knowing why certain stressors, events, people, foods, conversations, and feelings lead to binge urges is usually not very important to your recovery. What you need to know is that you’ve simply developed some habitual patterns, but binge eating does not help you cope in any way with the stress, events, foods, feelings, or obligations.
You always feel worse after the binges—it doesn’t do anything to solve your holiday problems or fulfill your responsibilities. When you binge, you either have to make yourself keep your obligations anyway—dragging yourself through the day with the binge eating making everything more difficult—or alternately, the binge makes you feel so badly that you have to cancel your plans, usually by making up an excuse.
On the surface, some people think that this second scenario of cancelling plans because of binge eating is the deeper reason for the binge, as if the binge was a subconscious way to get relief from responsibilities or avoid something they didn’t want to do. It is very important to see that this is not true. If you look deeper, you know that there are countless ways to get relief from responsibilities or avoid events without having to harm your health. All the binge does is give you temporary relief from the urge to binge, not from your responsibilities, obligations, or stress.
Keep Your Holiday Problems Separate from Your Binge Problems
If you’ve been exposed to what I’ll call the trigger theory in eating disorder recovery—the idea that you need to learn to handle triggers, or avoid them, in order to avoid binge eating—the holidays might seem like a dangerous time that is full of triggers for binge eating. Triggers can be things like a feeling, a negative comment from someone, eating a certain food, or being in a specific situation.
The trigger theory creates a scenario where your yes’s and no’s to holiday events, responsibilities, and even holiday food are what determines whether or not you will binge. For example, let’s say that you say yes to organizing a holiday party for your child’s class, and that creates a lot of stress the night before the party. During that stressful night, you have an urge to binge and act on it. In the trigger theory, the take-away lesson would be that you need to say no to organizing parties or similar events in the future, because you need to keep your stress level low to avoid a binge.
There are several problems with this theory. You might really want to organize parties for your child’s class, even if it brings extra stress, and you don’t want to have to base your life decisions around avoiding binges. Another flaw of this theory is that—even if you do say no to obligations—something else could create stress, and you could still have an urge to binge and still binge. Also, you could have a binge urge and binge even without any stress at all.
You Can Have Urges with Holiday Yes’s or No’s. Say No to the Holiday Binges
Here are some additional examples of how yes’s and no’s can create confusion when you use the trigger theory:
You say yes to eating some chocolates at a family holiday party and that leads to an urge to binge, and you act on it; so you decide that you must now say no to trigger foods at parties. Alternately, you say no to some chocolates at a family holiday party, then later that night you have a binge urge and eat a lot of chocolates as part of the binge; so you conclude that you should have said yes to the chocolates at the party—to avoid feeling deprived and then binge eating at home.
You say no to a holiday event because you don’t want to go, then when you are home alone, you have an urge to binge and act on it; so you decide that you need to say yes to social events in the future—in order to avoid being alone and binge eating.
Alternately, you say yes to a social event, but you feel anxious while you are there, and when you leave you have an urge to binge and act on it; so you decide that you need say no to those type of social events in the future to avoid binges.
As you can see, this trigger theory can make your decision-making feel very significant to your recovery, and very confusing as well. Even if you can somehow make what you feel are all the “right” decisions, you could still have binge urges. So, instead of all of this complexity, I want to tell you that saying yes or no to a holiday event, responsibility, or food has nothing to do with your ability to say no to a holiday binge. Your yes’s and no’s to things you want to do or don’t want to do during the holidays (or at any time in your life) are different from your yes’s or no’s when urges to binge arise. One decision doesn’t cause the other.
The binge urge is an urge to binge. It is not a hidden desire to avoid a responsibility or a social event; it is not an urge to calm yourself under holiday stress; it is not an indication of whether or not you should have eaten dessert at a party. It is a primal and habitual urge to eat an abnormally large amount of food. You can learn to dismiss it in any situation or after eating any food, or after experiencing any “trigger.”
Knowing that you have the capacity to dismiss binge urges whenever they arise gives you the freedom to say yes when you want to say yes and no when you want to say no, while always say no to binge eating.