For those recovering from an eating disorder, the holidays can be stressful
Those with eating disorders experience higher levels of anxiety
Shifting the focus to family and friends from food can help
Editor’s Note: Dr. Kenneth Weiner is founding partner and chief executive officer of the Eating Recovery Center in Denver.
According to the iconic holiday tune, ” ‘Tis the season to be jolly.”
Unfortunately, popular myths about the magic of the holidays set many Americans up for a struggle with real life. For the millions of men, women and children recovering from an eating disorder, the holiday season can bring heightened stress associated with an overwhelming schedule of events, painful or frustrating family dynamics and a seemingly constant focus on food that begins at Halloween and continues through New Year’s Day.
As a result, eating disorder treatment professionals frequently see an increase in eating-disordered thoughts and behaviors and lapses in recovery during the holiday season.
In reality, the holiday season may not actually be any more stressful for individuals in eating disorder recovery than everyone else – at some point or another, we are all likely to deal with anxiety stemming from any variety of sources, including the hassle of holiday travel or overspending on obligatory gifts.
However, it is important to remember that the people struggling with eating disorders are biologically “wired” to experience higher levels of anxiety than the rest of us, and their go-to tools to manage their anxiety – including starvation, bingeing, purging or over-exercising – can be unhealthy and sometimes even life-threatening.
Add this predisposition toward heightened anxiety to the perfectionistic, overachieving and people-pleasing temperament of many people with eating disorders and common holiday stressors can compel those in recovery to revert back to worrisome thoughts and behaviors in an effort to manage their anxious feelings.
The following strategies can help individuals protect their recovery during the holiday season:
Create your holiday schedule carefully. You don’t have to attend every holiday party, meal or gift exchange to get in the holiday spirit. Prioritize your health and well-being over external obligations and be realistic about what you can manage.
Shift the focus from food to family and friends. For some, rich seasonal fare and sweets can make eating in moderation difficult. For others, overabundant food and large meals can cause anxiety. Accept that food is typically a part of holiday get-togethers and turn your focus to meaningful interaction with family and friends.
Lean on your supportive network. Surround yourself with people that have positive relationships with food and their bodies, and stay in close contact with outpatient treatment professionals – including psychiatrists, therapists and dietitians. Discuss your feelings, victories and challenges with these individuals as they arise and before issues become significant enough to threaten recovery.
Be kind to yourself. The perfectionistic minds of those suffering from an eating disorder can make it difficult for them to accept when events do not go as planned. One perceived misstep does not make or break your recovery progress. Be proud of yourself for making an effort, however big or small and whatever the outcome.
Family and friends also play an important role in protecting eating disorders recovery during the holidays. The most important thing family and friends can do to support a loved one’s recovery is be flexible with holiday traditions and willing to begin new customs that involve small groups and don’t revolve around meals and food.
Making togetherness the central theme of holiday gatherings, rather than orchestrating large reunions featuring endless platters of seasonal comfort foods, can help minimize the anxiety felt by loved ones and the likelihood of relapse during this hectic time of year.
In addition to the aforementioned strategies to help individuals, families and friends protect recovery during the holiday season, a growing community of health care professionals now specialize in eating disorder prevention and treatment. These clinicians can help adults, adolescents, children and their families healthfully navigate the holiday season and beyond.
With appropriate support and a strong network of friends, family and treatment professionals, a healthy, happy holiday season is within reach for everyone.