How To Survive Family Gatherings With an Eating Disorder – Tip 3 of 3

Posted By on Jan 19, 2016 | 2 comments

How To Survive Family Gatherings With an Eating Disorder – Tip 3 of 3
by Z Zoccolante
(listen to the audio of this post in the blue box below)


In my last two posts, we’ve been speaking about how gatherings can be complicated and stressful for someone with an eating disorder. When we experience stress, eating disorders love to come out and play.

Last week we talked about how to respond when people make “stupid” questions or statements.

Did you miss it? Read it here. Tip 1. Tip 2.

This week we’ll move on to tip 3 of how to survive family gatherings.


3) Act with tact.

If you’re one of the millions of family members, friends, or loved ones witnessing others struggling with disordered eating, you probably don’t know what to do. You may notice that your niece, coworker or friend has lost a lot of weight, or that they’ve visited the bathroom multiple times. You may be worried but don’t know how to bring it up, so you try to force her to eat pumpkin pie at Christmas, have a huge piece of the office birthday cake, or watch her with hawk eyes the whole event.


If you’re concerned, please don’t announce that concern in public, or try to fix it with food. Instead, wait until that person is alone, or until a later date. Tell them you love them and that you’re concerned they may be struggling with a food disorder.

Be prepared for a defensive or curt response—that’s okay. The goal isn’t for you to “fix” them, it’s simply to let them know that you love them and that you’re worried.


Years ago, when I still had my eating disorder, a family member took my husband aside at a Fourth of July party. He expressed concern for some of the patterns they’d seen in me that night. I was f’ing livid because I was ashamed and didn’t want anyone to know about my struggle. But looking back on it now, that was one of the fundamental steps that got me into a recovery program. I’m now grateful that this family member had the balls to approach my husband with love for me, and us.


The brain of someone with an eating disorder becomes patterned very specifically. Think of the gutter lane in a bowling alley. As a stress ball begins to roll, it finds the well-worn groove we’ve already used hundreds of times. It falls into the gutter of our eating disordered thoughts and patterns.


When we repeatedly respond to stress by acting out our addictive or compulsive behaviors, neural pathways form. Over time, our brains wiring responds to stress by automatically acting on our negative behaviors. The more we stimulate the pathway the more likely we’ll choose that pathway the next time. We are, in fact, teaching our brains to choose and use our eating disorders as coping mechanisms.

But here’s the good news: Neural plasticity has proven that the brain is malleable. We can create different grooves.


It’s also important to remember that an eating disorder serves as a protection mechanism. It offers a way (although destructive) to silence anxiety or numb uncomfortable emotions. When a certain person or conversation triggers us, we could find ourselves in the next room loading our plate with appetizers, stashing candy bars in our desk drawer, excusing ourselves to the restroom to throw up, or limiting what we eat (i.e. restricting).


That’s where the grooves are right now. Until we make different ones, it’s is a way for us to self-soothe, to help get rid of pain or anger that could be overwhelming otherwise. It helps to recognize that in some way, we are trying to take care of ourselves, even if it’s destroying us from the inside out.


If this article speaks to you, know that you’re not alone. I vividly remember what it was like when I was in the claws of my eating disorder, traveling, visiting family, going to parties, and attending events. My feelings of heightened anxiety kept me from being present; instead of enjoying people and making new connections, I was obsessing about how I would avoid eating with them, or where I could possibly go in this tiny house full of people to throw up in peace.


If there’s anything I could have said to my younger self, it would have been this:

  • Love and accept yourself exactly where you are right now. This is where we start from.
  • Know that full recovery is possible. You won’t have to live like this forever.
  • As much as possible, choose to make positive memories and new connections with loved ones right now, instead of with the eating disorder. Remember that one can support you—the other lies and is trying to kill you.


It takes time to create different grooves. Education and determination help—so do good therapists.

Here’s wishing you happy—or at least trigger-free—family gatherings in 2016.

*Read the entire post on elephant journal.


Forward Locomotion:

Millions of people suffer from eating disorders, and they impact millions of loved ones. Eating disorders are a secret shame, so please SHARE THIS POST or the full post on elephant journal and help promote health and healing.

All it takes is one thing to initiate a moment of hope. That moment can spur people on to recovery and allow them to travel the road home to themselves.

I hope these 3 tips have given you some effective tools on how you can survive family gatherings when you have a eating disorder.

With Love, Z :)


How To Survive Family Gatherings With an Eating Disorder - Tip 3 of 3Z Zoccolante is a fully recovered anorexic/bulimic passionately dedicated to assisting others in their recovery. Her work appears in The Huffington Post, Psych Central, Adios Barbie, Peaceful Dumpling, and soon, the Surviving ED blog at In high school she developed a dysfunctional relationship with food, which overshadowed her next decade. After traveling the winding path of recovery, she won her happily ever after, and now uses the knowledge she gained to inspire people and deter others from the pointless path of skinny. She’s thrilled to announce her upcoming memoir, The Twisting War, which reveals the details of her journey, and is meant to help those with eating disorders attain happiness and freedom while also supporting the affected loved ones. For more empowerment around body image, food, and recovery, subscribe to Z’s weekly blog & audio at You can also get her directly at, 310-853-3271, or from her coaching page.


  1. More than your own denial when you were in high school, parents are in total denial also. Whenever it’s mentioned, they can quickly deny that any type of eating disorder existed. Suggestions can be made to people but only that person has to make the decision to change their own life. Thankfully you took that step and are again the beautiful person that you were meant to always be.

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    • Z Zoccolante

      Yes, that’s a vital problem with addictive behaviors or dysfunction . . . everyone plays their part even if they’re unaware of it or it’s innocent. Often parents are terrified and don’t know what to do, and also fear that they’re to blame. It wasn’t too long ago that parents were in fact blamed for any mental illness showing up in their children. There are definitely family factors to consider in recovery, but a parent’s denial often stems from fear, helplessness, and self-preservation. That’s why teen recovery from ED’s usually involves family therapy, so everyone can see the parts they play instead of just making the families issues about their “sick” child. It also helps to have a family who is supportive of therapy, but this is not always the case. At most points, the person will eventually need therapy or real help but it’s better to catch the eating disorder early. The other part is that most people with ED’s do not want help and can be mean about it and forcing someone can have the opposite effect of more control to which they’ll rebel more in the ED. It’s a balance, but 100% every person is responsible for their life and their actions and change must start from within. Thanks, I’m so grateful that I finally took the step to get treatment too, in hindsight :)).

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