The holidays can be all around exciting time: You may get to spend extra time with loved ones, take a short reprieve from work-related responsibilities, and enjoy the seasonal cheer. However, for someone in eating disorder recovery, this time of the year can be especially challenging and triggering. Luckily, getting through the holidays when you or your loved one lives with an eating disorder or is in recovery is totally doable with the help of advice from mental health professionals, structured support, and prep for the season.
Dr. Stephanie Zerwas, a clinical psychologist and founder of the private therapy practice Flourish Chapel Hill, tells Bustle that the holidays can be taxing on people who have eating disorders for many different reasons. “The holiday season usually means three things: Lots and lots of ... food, lots of time with extended family, and lots of unstructured time. Those three things can be incredibly rewarding, but for someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, they can also be incredibly difficult,” she explains.
Stress and mental exhaustion during the holiday season is not so uncommon, whether or not you struggle with disordered eating. Surveys have suggested that, while many of us might feel snug and sentimental during the winter months, the holidays are also linked to an increase in depression, anxiety, and sleep trouble. But, for the estimated 30 million people in the U.S. who struggle with some type of eating disorder, the hustle and bustle of the holidays can compound to the stress they may already be experiencing.
“People with eating disorders, who often struggle with their own internal experience, can find the emotional environment of holidays to be overwhelming. They may also experience intense self-judgment for not feeling so happy when everyone else appears to be,” says Alex Gonçalves, PhD, the Assistant Vice President and Clinical Director at The Renfrew Center of Philadelphia.
With this in mind, you may be wondering what is the best way to support someone who is in eating disorder recovery during the holidays. First things first, Gonçalves says that having a conversation about what to expect at the holidays beforehand is key to supporting a family member or friend with an eating disorder. He says, “Ask what your loved one is anticipating the holiday will be like, both the joys and the challenges. Ask what might be helpful. The discussion can provide some relief from the intense feeling of isolation that often accompanies an eating disorder. And, you just might gain an idea or two about how to help.”
It may even be useful to initiate a conversation with your loved one about creating a relapse prevention plan with the help of their treatment team. That way, you’re not simply guessing about what kind of support they need in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, or at a loud party. Prevention plans can be super personalized, but Zerwas explains that it’s typically a good idea to have set meal times and routines during the holiday season, especially if someone is early into their eating disorder recovery.
Additionally, Gonçalves stresses that it’s super important to let it be known to your loved one that their recovery comes first — even if that means ditching some of your old-school holiday traditions that could be upsetting to someone who struggles with disordered eating. “Your loved one likely has a difficult time putting themselves first. They may need you to do it,” he explains.
What’s more, as a general rule, “Be careful about your own relationship with your body and with food, and how you talk about others,” Zerwas says. Both Zerwas and Gonçalves explain commenting on the physical appearance or eating habits of family members, or yourself, can be especially triggering to hear for a person who is in eating disorder recovery. “Talking about one’s own weight and appearance is not helpful, because your loved one will just take that to be evidence that their weight and appearance are critically important, too,” Gonçalve says.
While it may be tempting to compliment or ‘correct” a loved one struggling with an eating disorder as a way to combat it (i.e., comments like, “Don’t be stressed, you look so great!”), Zerwas explains this may do more harm than good.
“Eating disorders don’t respond to logic and argument. They do respond to love, empathy, and compassion,” she says. “Instead of trying to fix your family member by showing them the error of their eating disorder thoughts, let them know that you have empathy for how they are feeling, and ask them what kind of help they would like.”
Though stigma still persists, Zerwas says that eating disorders aren’t “just a choice, or simply vanity gone awry,” and treating them as such during the holidays — or any time of the year — can be detrimental. While many people may still think of eating disorders strictly in terms of the “physical” symptoms, such as binging, purging, or restricting, these mental health disorders can lead to intense mood swings, depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation. As the National Institute For Mental Health reported in 2012, eating disorders are the most fatal mental health disorders. Meaning, making sure your holiday plans and traditions don’t jeopardize someone's recovery is invaluable.
“The holidays can be an incredible time to demonstrate how to enjoy food, how to nourish your body with your family traditions, and how to demonstrate non-judgmental love and compassion to anyone — no matter their body size,” says Zerwas. “If you show love to yourself and others, it will help you, but it will also help your loved one who is in recovery as well.”
Supporting someone with an eating disorder who finds the holiday season triggering is all about communication, compassion, and consistency: Be supportive of your loved one, actually listen to them, and don’t be afraid seek advice or support from mental health professionals when needed. You may never completely quell the stress that comes along with the holiday season, but putting these expert-approved tips into action can make all the difference for your loved one in eating disorder recovery.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a Helpline volunteer here.