While the holidays are a time most people look forward to, they can often magnify personal struggles for people with eating disorders. The combination of dealing with the anxiety of being around extended family, and the accentuated focus on food, can be a major trigger for many.
ED behaviors are often triggered by holidays.
Those suffering from EDs need a lot of extra support and compassion during this time. Here are some ways loved ones can help ease concerns and reduce anxiety this holiday season and stay on the path to recovery.
Make Recovery A Priority
With busy schedules and lots of holiday gatherings, someone recovering from an eating disorder may need added support from loved ones to stay on the path to full recovery during this overwhelming and difficult time.
Remind loved ones that recovery is the most important thing, for them and you.
Offer a lot of support and be aware of what may be creating anxiety. Let the person suffering from an ED know they are loved and that their recovery is the number one priority over any other holiday plan. If there is someone visiting who makes them uncomfortable or anxious, plan appropriate ways of excusing your loved one from their company. Your shared goal is to prevent any triggers, when possible, and ensure that recovery remains the top priority.
The holiday season brings unpredictable situations— schedules are thrown off and normal routines can give way to complete chaos. Helping your loved one find structure is key during this time. They might be tempted to convince you it’s okay for them to skip their regular treatment appointments during the holidays. This is not advisable. It’s important to keep structured mealtimes, as much as possible, and continue with any regular outlined treatment plan through the holidays.
Encourage Them to Communicate Their Feelings
With so much happening during the holidays, it can be easy to lose sight of what’s really important. Ongoing communication is key. If you and your loved one have less time or energy to make ED treatment a priority, take the time to sit down and re-prioritize with them. Plan together which events you and your loved one will attend as invitations are received. Avoid overbooking and cut down on unnecessary events and obligations to allow time for relaxation and low-stress activities. Remind your loved one that it’s okay to not attend every single season-related event. This is their time to take care of themselves and continue on their journey towards recovery.
Large festive celebrations, including extended family gatherings, work parties, and gift exchanges can be overwhelming. The pressure of eating the party food and the constant worrying about offending others is stressful for people going through recovery. Ask guests to not comment on your loved one’s appearance or eating habits. Also, remind them not to push food or monitor consumption. Talk to your loved one about what boundaries to set ahead of time and then stay strong on holding to them.
Plan ahead and make backup plans during the holiday season as things tend to shift daily when lots of people are involved. Identify possible triggers and the coping strategies that may be helpful in navigating and working through them. It’s also helpful to have exit strategies in place. Sometimes emotional triggers may come from what’s served for dinner, or the topic of conversation, etc. If your loved one appears to be having a particularly difficult experience it may be time to leave the dinner or family party. In fact, it may be helpful to have a “sign” to indicate the desire to leave. Plan in advance and take two cars so other family members can stay when you leave early. Set and adhere to a specific time to leave so everyone knows what to expect. Again, planning ahead is key to minimizing distress. Preparing for stressful situations and working on strategies beforehand can help your loved one avoid falling into old, destructive patterns.
Change the Focus
There is often an emphasis on food during the holidays that can be challenging for someone in recovery. Stop centering everything around food and instead, emphasize time together. By redirecting focus away from food and onto family, friends, and fun activities, you’ll be helping to relieve your loved one from food-related anxieties. Take this quality time away from work or school to enjoy holiday traditions. Find non-food-focused activities to engage in with your family, such as games, sightseeing, decorating, watching family movies, and just spending time talking together.
Sometimes less is more. Just by talking and sharing as a small circle of family members or friends can increase the sense of belonging and safety for someone with an eating disorder. It is much easier and less overwhelming for them than a large group setting. Maybe even plan to do volunteer work or join an interest or support group. Helping others will make you and your loved one feel good about yourselves and can increase self-esteem.
Remember You’re in it Together
As a family member or friend who is helping someone struggling with an eating disorder, recognize that the recovery process is not just hard for your loved one, it’s hard for you too! Validate that the holidays and food-focused activities are difficult to navigate and that you are in this together. Ask your loved ones what they need. The person struggling with the eating disorder probably has his or her own list of positive things they can do to help get through the holiday season as well. Try to reflect on all the things in your lives that are going well and express a lot of love, kindness, and acceptance toward the person with an eating disorder. Knowing there is someone who can help through tough times can be extremely powerful! If you or someone you love needs some extra support this holiday season, know that we’re always here. You are never alone on this road to recovery.
Before the actual holiday, and before family gatherings start happening, talk to your loved one about how you can best help to minimize the pressure they may feel during social events. Family dynamics, including arguments, can be triggering to those with eating disorder difficulties. Spending lots of time with extended family in close quarters during the holidays has the potential to dredge up old issues, fears, conflicts, and worries about relationships. The resulting emotional disruption can exacerbate eating disorders.