Navigating Halloween in Eating Disorder Recovery

By Alexa Rivera

Halloween & Eating Disorder Recovery

Fall is the season of cozy sweaters and pumpkin picking, but it’s also the season of Halloween. Like most other holidays, Halloween can be triggering for those with an eating disorder. While most people are chatting about costumes and parties, those with eating disorders are struggling with thoughts of body image and weight disturbances when picking out a costume or passing the candy aisle. 

Going trick-or-treating, shopping for a Halloween costume and going to parties are just some of the ways Halloween can be triggering. Being mindful of potential triggers and finding ways to celebrate Halloween comfortably are vital to maintaining your recovery.

Preparing for Trick-or-Treating

Candy is almost unavoidable during Halloween. Kids lug home huge pillowcases filled with candy back to their houses, big bowls of candy are set out on snack tables at high school and college parties, grocery stores have floor-to-ceiling shelves of candy for sale and at the end of Halloween night there’s tons of candy to spare.

Depending on your eating disorder, you might have spent past Halloweens denying yourself candy or binging on it late at night. Either way, you can start building a healthier relationship with food by changing your perspective on food and how you “should” be participating in Halloween.

Candy as a Fear Food

Dichotomies around food are common in patients with eating disorders. Foods are categorized as either good or bad, safe or unsafe or healthy or unhealthy. Foods containing high amounts of sugar, like candy, are often put into a negative category and are to be avoided.

It’s important to remember that all foods have their place and foods don’t have moral value. Halloween candy is a perfect example of this. Candy isn’t an enemy and it isn’t poison. Candy isn’t bad, it’s neutral. The reality is that all food is good food and there is nothing wrong with eating candy on Halloween or any day of the year.

Practicing intuitive eating can be a great tool in conquering this fear. Instead of attaching feelings of guilt, shame and fear to Halloween candy, reinforce a new, positive relationship with food by giving yourself permission to enjoy candy while still listening to your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues.

Candy as a Binge Trigger

During Halloween, it’s common for people to go out and buy large bags of candy to give out to children. However, for individuals who binge, having such a large amount of candy available to them can be triggering. You can either choose not to hand out treats or instead give out non-candy items, like:

  • Glowsticks
  • Temporary tattoos
  • Pencils and erasers
  • Stickers
  • Bubbles
  • Bracelets

If you want to trick-or-treat but don’t feel comfortable bringing home all that candy, you can skip that part. Go up to the doorstep and don’t collect or you can collect and gift your candy to someone else in your group. You can also choose to donate unwanted candy to different organizations the next day.

Dressing Up for Halloween with an Eating Disorder

Clothing shopping can be triggering for individuals who are in eating disorder recovery, but shopping for a Halloween costume can be even more difficult. Halloween costumes for women are known to be revealing, and society emphasizes that one of the main purposes of dressing up for Halloween is to look attractive.

Remember that there is more to life, and more to Halloween, than just looking good. Halloween is a time to have fun, play pretend, express yourself and celebrate the changing seasons—you don’t need to look a certain way to do any of that. Your body allows you to participate in the Halloween activities you enjoy, and that’s more important than how your body looks.

When choosing a Halloween costume, choose whatever makes you feel the most comfortable. If anything about a costume makes you uncomfortable, you don’t have to wear it. In fact, you’re under no obligation to wear a costume at all if you don’t want to.

Modify Your Costume

There’s no right way to wear a costume. If modifying a costume by adding pants, sleeves or tights makes you feel the most comfortable, that’s perfectly okay. Stand your ground if friends insist you need to match or that you’re “ruining” the look by modifying your costume. Halloween is supposed to be fun, not stressful.

Go for Scary, Cute or Funny

While there’s nothing wrong with showing more skin during Halloween, you’re under no obligation to choose a revealing costume if you don’t like them. Halloween is about having fun while you’re dressed up, so go for a scary, cute or funny costume if that’s more your style.

Dress Up Without a Costume

If costumes aren’t your thing, you don’t need one. Halloween themed clothing is a great way to get in on the fun while skipping the costume. Wear a graphic tee with your favorite Halloween movie on it or search your local thrift stores for a vintage Halloween sweater or vest.

Emphasize Your Makeup

Get inspired by Halloween motifs or classic horror characters and incorporate them into your makeup look for the day. This is a subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) way to celebrate without having to go through the process of picking out a costume.

Preparing for Potlucks & Parties

Halloween isn’t just about candy, it’s also about socializing. Many people host dinners, pot lucks or parties during Halloween that don’t just feature candy, but other foods that can be triggering. Our advice for preparing for Halloween celebrations is very similar to other holidays.

Getting Ready for Potlucks

Halloween may be one of the few times you see certain people during the year or feel obligated to socialize, which might be triggering when you’re confronted with different foods or get[CS1]  comments about your appearance. While you don’t need to attend any events, if you want to get out and socialize there are a few ways to make it easier.

Practice Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is an important and recurring theme in recovery. Halloween can be a very stressful time and a little self-compassion goes a long way in alleviating the guilt, shame or frustration you may feel as you struggle. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed and it’s okay to fall short.

Set Boundaries

It’s okay to tell people that you’re not going to discuss your treatment or appearance. Asking that people don’t comment, ask invasive questions about your health or appearance or setting other boundaries is a form of self-respect.

Ask for Support When You Need It

Your partner, friends or family members who are aware of your eating disorder can be a great source of strength during Halloween. They can join you at events, be with you when you need to take a moment when feeling overwhelmed or make alternative plans to celebrate the holiday.

If you fall back on disordered eating behaviors, there’s no shame in re-entering treatment if that’s something you think you need. It’s especially important to re-enter treatment if you begin losing weight or notice medical complications returning.

Partying with an Eating Disorder

For adults, candy can sometimes take a backseat to alcohol. Drinking alcohol is a main component of parties and social events, with many bars and clubs hosting Halloween parties. There is an expectation to drink, which can lead to overconsumption and may trigger disordered eating behaviors. Depending on where you are in your recovery, it might be better to abstain completely or try drinking in moderation.

If you are early in your recovery or were recently hospitalized for your eating disorder, it’s important to discuss alcohol consumption with your treatment team. It’s often recommended that alcohol be avoided as it can trigger disordered eating, exacerbate medical complications or psychiatric symptoms or interact with medication.

If you’re further into your eating disorder recovery journey, you may want to start practicing drinking alcohol in moderation. You can set a drink limit, space out drinks or refrain from hard alcohol and share this with your group so they can hold you accountable.

If you struggle with substance use disorder, particularly alcohol use disorder, it’s also recommended that events like these are avoided. If you think drinking in moderation will be difficult, we encourage you to speak to your treatment team to address any underlying substance use disorders.

Celebrating Halloween without Candy or Costumes

While trick-or-treating is a big aspect of Halloween, candy and costumes aren’t the only way to celebrate the day. There are tons of other activities that can get you into the spirit, like watching a movie, going to a haunted house or picking and carving pumpkins.

Go to a Haunted House

Meeting up with friends to walk through a haunted house or attend a horror-themed night at your favorite theme park are great ways to get out, have some fun and get spooked without having to worry about food at all.

Decorate Your Home

Even if you aren’t up for going out and celebrating, staying in and decorating can be an activity by itself. Not only is it fun to go through and put out all your fall and Halloween decorations, the act of cleaning and stowing away your summer clothes and items can be therapeutic. Decorating can give you some needed time to reflect on how your year has been so far and the goals you have for the last few months of the year.

Watch a Movie or Show

‘Tis the season for a creature feature! Get to the theater or cuddle up on the couch with your partner, kids or pet and watch your favorite scary movie. But maybe you’re not the horror type, in which case you may want to opt for a fall or Halloween special without all of the scares.

Pick Flowers or Produce

A lot of towns have fall festivals where you can pick your own flowers or produce, like sunflowers, mums, apples or pumpkins. You can use these all for different crafts and projects. Pick some sunflowers and make an arrangement or get mums for your doorstep. Go out in the field and pick a pumpkin to take home to carve or paint.

Depending on where you are in your recovery, you may even choose to go apple picking. If you’re not ready to have candy this year, you can try introducing fruits like apples or pears first. If you’re already incorporating them in your diet, you might be inspired to go outside of your comfort zone and try candy-coated or caramel apples this year.

Make a Simmer Pot or Light a Candle

The smells of fall are ubiquitous. Bring in the season with a simmer pot filled with your favorite scents of autumn, like apples, oranges, lemons, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and allspice. If you want to skip the prep and simmering, you can always light a fall-scented candle instead.

Get Crafting

Halloween isn’t all about what you eat, it’s also about the colors and textures of the season. Get the creative juices flowing with premade crafting kits or create something from scratch. If you’re having a hard time thinking of something to make, here are some ideas:

  • Knit/crochet a scarf or hat
  • Paint your own Halloween artwork
  • Make origami bats, ghosts or pumpkins
  • Make leaf prints with ink or paint
  • Make a scarecrow

Enjoy Nature & Gardening

Nature brings its own wave of peace and comfort. Enjoy fall in its purest form by spending time in nature and taking in the changing colors of the foliage. Whether you’re heading to a park to hike or are just walking around your neighborhood, enjoy all the sounds of fall—the crisp wind, the leaves crunching beneath your feet, the songs of autumn birds.

This is also a time to get into gardening. While you’d need to plant fall crops in the summer, the fall months are the perfect time to plan for spring and start planting flower bulbs.

Fall will return every year without fail. There are many tools that you can use to make this time easier and, while your Halloween may look different, there are still ways that you can have fall fun and enjoy the season.

ACUTE Earns Prestigious Center of Excellence Designation from Anthem
In 2018, the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders & Severe Malnutrition at Denver Health was honored by Anthem Health as a Center of Excellence for Medical Treatment of Severe and Extreme Eating Disorders. ACUTE is the first medical unit ever to achieve this designation in the field of eating disorders. It comes after a rigorous review process.

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