The Fourth of July, like so many holidays in our culture, centers on food-based celebrations. Sure, there are fireworks, but before they begin, there are BBQs and cakes and ice cream. Food-based celebrations are always a challenge for someone who is in recovery for an eating disorder. While our disorders are not only about food, highly-stimulating situations combined with food often equal eating disorder triggers.
Stimulation = stress, and stress is a trigger
Most of us who have eating disorders are highly sensitive people. This means that situations that may be non-stiumlating for others can be overly stimulating for us. High stimulation, even if it is positive stimulation caused by being with friends and loved ones, is felt as stress.
Since our response to stress is our eating disorder, many of us find that highly stimulating situations are triggers for our disordered behaviors. Even if we aren’t triggered to act on our eating disorders, there is a good chance that we will find ourselves overwhelmed and seeking coping mechanisms when participating in a high-stimulation holiday like the Fourth of July.
If you have a child who has an eating disorder, consider first whether a highly stimulating environment is appropriate at this stage in treatment. If your child is still in the early stages of learning healthy coping mechanisms, you may want to avoid or at least limit the time spent at highly-stimulating events.
If you child is well into recovery, consider how much stimulation is manageable, and review with your child in advance the healthy coping mechanisms they find helpful in highly stimulating situations.
Parties = food, and food is a trigger
Almost every Fourth of July party involves a large spread of food. We tend to celebrate the Fourth of July with chips and dips, barbecued hot dogs and hamburgers, pasta and potato salads, and, of course, ice cream, American flag cakes and berry pies with extra whipped cream. These foods feel nostalgic and wonderful to most people, but for those of us who have eating disorders, they can be deeply triggering.
Many of us, regardless of the type of eating disorder we have, are afraid of food buffets. If we fall on the orthorexic spectrum, we worry that we will not find anything that we can eat. Those of us on the binge spectrum worry that once we start eating those tasty foods, we won’t stop. Those of us on the anorexic spectrum worry that people will be watching every morsel of food we do or don’t eat.
If you have a child who has an eating disorder, think carefully about how the food will be presented at the party. Speak with the host in advance to find out what foods will be available and how they will be served. If you find out that it will be a buffet as described above, then speak with your child about how such a situation will feel at this stage in his or her recovery.
If your child is in the early stages of recovery, the mere thought of being around that much food may be too much to deal with. On the other hand, a child who is well into recovery may work with you on a pre-party food plan and have some signals prepared for you during the event in case things get uncomfortable.
If you decide to attend a Fourth of July party with your child who is in recovery for an eating disorder, consider the following pre-party checklist:
- Discuss how long is a reasonable amount of time to attend a party, and plan accordingly.
- Make a food plan to ensure your child gets neither too hungry nor too full and feels secure in terms of nutrition for the day.
- Talk about the triggers that your child may encounter at the party, and discuss how they may feel.
- Talk about healthy coping mechanisms that can be used during the party. These may range from seeking a favorite cousin to taking a 10-minute break in the car.
- Prepare an “escape plan” if necessary so that your child feels confident that she/he can leave the party if necessary.
Most importantly, remember that healing from an eating disorder takes time and effort, but it is possible. This year’s Fourth of July celebration may not be the same as previous years, but that doesn’t mean that every year from here on out will be restricted. This is one year out of many, and hopefully next year your child will be in a more fully-recovered place and you can return to previous traditions again.