For many cultures, Halloween marks the beginning of the holiday season, and the holiday season marks the beginning of a series of festivities that often feature food as their focal points. While the tricks ‘n treats of Halloween can be a delight and a diversion from day-to-day life for many, for those working toward eating disorder recovery, Halloween can offer unique challenges.
Despite the deliciousness of typical Halloween treats and candies, these foods are often triggering for those on the path to recovery. Specific Halloween candies might even be “fear foods,” foods that someone is afraid to eat due to the thoughts and feelings they associate with those foods. Within the context of eating disorder treatment and recovery, fear foods present significant challenges and can drum up feelings of anxiety. However, these foods can also serve as opportunities to face a challenge, and to view the food from a new perspective.
At its essence, Halloween is a holiday that treats fears and frights in a different light. Halloween naturally lends itself to exploring our fears from a different perspective. How can we embrace the unique spirit of the holiday, through the lens of eating disorder recovery? We wanted to offer a few suggestions to keep in mind.
Know Your Fears
Before we can learn to approach our fears differently, we first must know what those fears are. What scares you? As you consider the upcoming holidays, and Halloween specifically, what foods or situations have made you feel anxious, nervous, or fearful in the past? Take some time to understand the events or foods that trigger you. When you have a clear understanding of your triggers and your fears, you will be better equipped to recognize them in the moment.
From Fright, to Flight or Fight, to Awareness
When we experience things that scare us, our minds and bodies go into high alert, or “fight or flight” mode. This automatic, physiological response is completely normal. Evolutionarily, we adapted toward the fight or flight response in order to increase our chances of survival in life-threatening situations. This evolutionary response activates the sympathetic nervous system and prepares our bodies to literally fight or flee.
While in modern society, we typically experience far fewer life-threatening situations than our ancient, primitive ancestors, the fight or flight response remains. So, when we experience situations that frighten us, even if there is no tangibly life-threatening implication to that fear, the fight or flight response may still be activated. For those working toward eating disorder recovery, a fear food, or a triggering situation can activate this response.
Understanding the origins and symptoms of the fight or flight response can help ground you in the present moment and bring you into a state of awareness. If you know your fears, and you know the physiological signs and symptoms of your fight or flight response, you can observe this reaction from a different lens.
Notice if your heart rate increase, if your breathing pattern changes, if you begin to sweat, or if you generally begin to feel uncomfortable. These signs might cue that you’ve experienced a trigger and that your fight or flight response is turned on. If you notice these signs, pause. Observe. Bring your attention into the moment. Focus on your breath. Focus on bringing your breath in and out of your body as steadily as possible. Turning your attention to the present and to a mindful awareness of your feelings and sensations can help shift the tide.
For many on the road to eating disorder recovery, the treats of Halloween once felt entirely off limits. The ghosts of disordered thoughts about candy often creep up during this season. We encourage you to allow yourself Halloween candy. Especially for those early in their recovery journey, this can be a challenge. Step into that challenge and invite yourself to enjoy the treats of the holiday. Keep in mind that enjoying some Halloween candy does not necessitate changes to your eating patterns or your pro-recovery decision making. You do not have to compensate or alter your food choices due to your pro-recovery choice to eat candy. Notice if the urge to modify your choices occurs after consuming holiday treats. If that urge arises, focus on an awareness of that urge rather than acting upon it.
As you make your plans to celebrate Halloween, and the holidays to follow, keep your recovery close to your heart. The path toward eating disorder recovery is full of challenges, but those challenges also present tremendous opportunities. Opportunities to learn. Opportunities to grow. Opportunities to embrace your strength. In the moment, those challenges can certainly feel like tricks, but ultimately, they just might yield the sweetest treats of all.