As the weather warms up, many cities and states are loosening the stay-at-home orders enacted to combat COVID-19. This increased leeway arrives just in time for visits to the beach, graduation parties and barbecues. However, the coronavirus is still circulating, so this year’s backyard barbecue season looks a bit different than usual. Flexibility is key, but even in the best of times, social gatherings can provoke stress for those with an eating disorder. However, social events can also be opportunities to boost recovery by combating months of loneliness while in quarantine.

Face masks, social distancing, and inappropriate “COVID-15” jokes are a new twist on our lives. However, the underlying challenges of social gatherings are largely the same as they have always been. When you have an eating disorder, any situation involving food can be difficult, particularly when the food has been prepared by others and you aren’t in control of the recipes. Eating in front of other people can cause a huge amount of stress. And even if a social event doesn’t include food, interpersonal dynamics can trigger the urge to binge, purge or restrict later in the day.

In light of all this, feeling ambivalent – or even nervous – about the summer social season is understandable. Here are some suggestions to manage get-togethers.

Anticipate Diet Talk

It seems that Americans are obsessed with diets and weight loss, even if they substitute euphemisms like “lifestyle” or “clean eating.” Diet culture, a belief system that values specific body types and ways of eating, is so common that people often have a difficult time recognizing it. The global pandemic’s version of diet culture features widespread lament over eating emotionally or eating “too much” comfort food, and then topping it off with the ubiquitous “COVID-15” weight gain jokes. Recognizing this as an expression of the larger diet culture that affects everyone can help you deflect such comments instead of taking them personally.

Draw on Coping Skills 

The coronavirus pandemic has increased feelings of stress and anxiety for many people. Besides worry about oneself or loved ones becoming sick, economic stress is widespread. When an eating disorder is added to an already-anxious baseline, the urge to restrict, binge and/or purge can feel overwhelming.

Remembering which coping skills have helped in the past can prepare you for social outings. Review what’s in your toolbox: Deep breathing, texting a trusted friend, taking a quick timeout, changing the topic of conversation and doing the opposite of what the eating disorder voice says are a few examples.

Use Social Gatherings as an Opportunity to Heal

Worrying about the menu is common for those with an eating disorder. Too often, this apprehension prevents them from attending parties and other social events. Eating disorders are about food, but ultimately they are not about food. The same is true for social gatherings. While food may be a featured player, it does not have to be the main focus. Before leaving for the party, ask what you want to gain by attending. Is it a chance to reconnect with a dear friend? The prospect of catching up on coworkers’ lives?

Backyard barbecues and other summer gatherings are great opportunities to emerge from the compulsory solitude of the pandemic. Unfortunately, the eating disorder voice is likely to chime in and order, “Stay home!” The social isolation of stay-at-home orders are an eating disorder’s best friend. So venturing out safely is an opportunity to support and advance recovery.

Barbara Spanjers, MS MFT, is a therapist and wellness coach who helps people feel more attuned with food and their body. Learn more.