The “most wonderful time of the year” is often anything but for those battling an eating disorder or working toward recovery. It should come as no surprise that the holiday season is frequently a time for relapse or exacerbation of eating disorder symptoms. After all, the much-beloved traditions and events this time of year are teeming with potential triggers. Increased exposure to fear foods, activities centered around eating, and extended time with family can magnify an individual’s struggles.
For a peek behind the curtain of these illnesses, consider a holiday meal at a relative’s home. Being immersed in a group setting can elicit tremendous pressure for those in recovery, particularly around the holidays when the expectation is to engage in the “normal” food and social activities of the season. Those in any stage of recovery may avoid holiday gatherings altogether out of the fear that every eye will be on them, silently (or not so silently) assessing their appearance, weight, and the contents of their plate.
Mealtime—the reason for the gathering—can be utterly agonizing. Those struggling with anorexia nervosa or avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) may be reluctant, even immobilized, by the lack of control over what food is served, how the food is prepared, and whether it fits into their limited dietary palette. The festive treats of the season, such as cookies and eggnog, might be considered “fear foods,” with the potential to spark tremendous guilt over the perceived “indulgence.”
Holiday gatherings can further a preoccupation with food for those struggling with bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or compulsive overeating, who may engage in more frequent binge eating and purging due to the prevalence and easy convenience of trigger foods this time of year.
Despite this minefield of potential triggers and emotional strain for someone in recovery, there is a bright spot: you. Loved ones genuinely have the power to help cut through the chaos and noise of the season, acting as a grounding, supportive force for those bearing the burden of an eating disorder. Seeing someone you love suffer during this season (or any season) can be incredibly distressing. How wonderful it would be if you could remove all the hurdles in your loved one’s path to recovery!
While it’s unrealistic to set the expectation that you alone can make this the best season ever, you can bring peace, compassion, and understanding to the holidays this year, perhaps making it just a little bit happier for someone in recovery.
Recovery should be at the forefront during the holidays, and one of the best ways to make this season recovery-oriented is to plan in advance. Support your loved one by gathering and sharing details of any upcoming get-togethers or events. By giving as many details as you can about the schedule to your loved one, you’re giving them the opportunity to work with their treatment team or therapist on how to approach particular situations and feel more in control.
Planning ahead should also involve modeling and encouraging regular eating intervals in the time leading up to the event. Skipping meals or eating nothing at all before a party or in the days leading up to it will inevitably lead to irritability, mood disturbances, and the potential for overeating or fixating on food at the event—all of which should be avoided in the pursuit of a peaceful, intuitive relationship with food.
Should you feel compelled to do some research of your own as a way to better prepare yourself, there are countless resources available to help educate you on how to become a recovery ally. Getting some baseline knowledge from experts in the field is a great way to dispel your own potentially harmful assumptions and lovingly be in your person’s corner this season without putting all the pressure of educating others on them.
Manage Expectations with Grace and Honesty
Don’t create pressure or expectations (overt or implicit) for this to be the best time of the year. It’s possible that traditions your loved one has enjoyed in the past are no longer appealing at this point in their recovery. Rather than viewing a change or cancellation of plans as a disappointment—which may play out as a trigger for someone in recovery—free your mind to respond to whatever your loved one is capable of during the holidays. For someone struggling with an eating disorder, a bit of understanding can go a long way.
Everyone’s individual needs and boundaries in recovery may be different. We encourage gently opening up a conversation with your loved one about what would be helpful to their recovery during the holidays. Perhaps they’re not comfortable talking about treatment with family friends, or are anxiously anticipating comments from grandma about her latest diet. When going into a family or social event, especially if attendees are aware of the eating disorder, it may be helpful to make a few boundary requests. Be honest with attendees ahead of time about what will help and what will not help during the event. Give reassurance about your desire to be supportive and respectful of your loved one, without trying to micromanage every problem that may arise. Boundary-setting with family and friends can be difficult, but it pales in comparison with the difficulties one might face if pressured to attend an event where uninformed, triggering comments could send them spinning into disordered behaviors.
Take the Focus Off Food
Holidays are inherently food-centric, though not the sole reason for our celebration. Whether you’re gathering with family, observing religious beliefs, or reconnecting with friends, it is possible to enjoy the holidays without overemphasizing food. Help create an environment that reinforces the reason for gathering, with activities that transcend meals and eating, such as:
- Taking a drive to view holiday lights
- Watching a favorite holiday movie
- Going on a walk
- Making paper snowflakes or garlands
- Working on a puzzle or playing a board game
- Reading or journaling together
- Simply catching up
Focusing less on food during the holidays can do so much to increase the sense of belonging and safety for someone with an eating disorder.
Shifting the focus away from food extends to comments made at gatherings. Help put a moratorium on food, diet, and weight talk. Hearing an offhand remark about how “stuffed” one is or how they’re going to “need a workout” after dinner can cause great anxiety for someone who has a tumultuous relationship with food and their body. Allyship can be expressed by redirecting the conversation to a topic unrelated to food, suggesting a game during dinner, or, if it persists, talking privately with the person making problematic commentary about its potentially triggering effects.
Furthermore, don’t pressure your loved one to eat a certain food, comment on what or how much they’re eating (even if it’s coming from a place of encouragement), or do anything else that might draw attention to their plate. A shared table is one of the most vulnerable settings for someone in the midst of recovery. Eating disorders can make an individual feel like an unwanted spotlight is on them at all times. Adding attention-grabbing comments to the mix can cue plate-tracking sets of eyes all around the table—a nightmarish scenario for an individual just trying to brave their way through the meal.
Act as a “Safe Person”
Thinking of yourself as a “safe person” may help you achieve a deeper understanding of your role this season. When we help prepare our patients for challenging situations, we often advise them to identify a support person. This person is aligned with their recovery goals, recognizes that it’s not their job to “fix” the eating disorder, and can share the process with them. One of the most beautiful traits that a support person can offer is a sense of safety. Learning about your loved one’s illness, discussing their unique experiences, engaging with their treatment team (if appropriate), respecting and advocating for their boundaries, and mitigating triggers can build a sense of emotional safety essential to the role of a support person and recovery ally.
In practice, allyship may involve recognizing that your loved one appears uneasy at the holiday table and prompting them with a question about the new podcast they’re into. If you’re not together at a high-stress gathering your loved one is attending, perhaps you can establish yourself as an ‘SOS’ contact. Should your loved one face a moment that tests their recovery, they know to shoot you a text and you can provide some reassurance via a phone call or a message of love. What are they doing after the gathering? Stress may linger and manifest as intrusive thoughts following mealtime; perhaps you can plan to meet up with them for a walk or to play their favorite board game together.
It’s not your job to do everything perfectly as a support person; no one is tallying your slip-ups. Just cheering your loved one on and reminding them that you care about them during this charged time of year can make a world of difference. Becoming a more intentional, impactful eating disorder ally is the greatest gift you can give to someone struggling this season.
If you or someone you know could use some extra support this season – or any season – Veritas Collaborative is here. Give us a call at 612-402-3061 or complete our online form.