Eating Disorders Around the Holidays
With the holidays around the corner, some of us are dreaming of dancing sugarplums. However, some of us are having nightmares about those sugarplums, cookies, cakes, candy, roast beef, baked ziti and any other items one may find on the table during the season. While the holidays are a time of celebration and joy, someone with an eating disorder usually finds themselves too preoccupied with food to be able to be present or enjoy the holiday season.
Let’s look at the social aspect of holidays. The holidays typically bring families and friends together, that may not be able to see each other at other times of the year. I often spend much time with my clients after the holidays processing and “de-traumatizing” them from comments made from family members. For purposes of this post, I will assume that the majority of these comments are made in good faith. Comments made toward someone with an eating disorder can be and will be misconstrued even when you think you are giving a compliment. Let me offer you an example of a comment made to Jamie, someone struggling with Anorexia, from her Aunt;
Aunt: “Oh my goodness, Jamie, you look amazing! You lost so much weight! What’s your secret?!”
Inside Jamie’s mind: “What does she mean I lost so much weight? Was I fat before? If I was, then maybe I’m still fat now. I should keep losing weight because it must be good. If I start gaining weight, everyone will notice just how everyone noticed I lost weight. Maybe I should cut down on my dinners from now on to lose more weight. Ugh, that cake over there looks really good, but I can’t have any. Even if I wanted to, thin girls don’t eat cake and she’ll see that I’m a poser and think of me as the fat girl I really am.”
You can see how this can get in the way of being able to enjoy the holiday and time being spent with family. Jamie’s aunt may have had no idea that Jamie was struggling with an eating disorder, but her comment now will be ruminating in Jamie’s head creating a space for ED (see Eating Disorder Self vs Healthy Self post) to thrive. Now, let’s assume that Jamie’s aunt is aware of Jamie’s eating disorder and is genuinely concerned about her health. Her aunt then sees her on Christmas Day and embraces her with a big hug and smile, exclaiming how Jamie looks “so healthy” now, and how she is just so happy that Jamie is “better.” In a healthy mind, we can understand how this was a genuine comment coming from a place of concern and relief for Jamie’s struggles. But it is often one of the biggest triggers for someone with an eating disorder;
Inside Jamie’s mind: Healthy?! I look healthy?! Everyone knows that “healthy” means “fat!” I can’t believe it, I knew I’ve been gaining weight and now I know for a fact that everyone sees it. I’m not eating for the rest of the night, or tomorrow and in fact, I’m going to add in another mile to my daily run until I lose the weight again!
Moral of the story: Please, please, if you are aware that someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, avoid at all costs any comments that bring attention to his/her appearance or body. Although you may be coming from a good place, it will be distorted by the eating disorder. As a result, it can be a setback to recovery. If you are concerned or suspect a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, there is a way to approach them that can be helpful, without bringing attention to their body. I will cover how to approach this conversation more in a later post.
The other stressor of the holidays is the food! Let’s be realistic, we live in America and as Americans, all of our social engagements and celebrations revolve around food. In our culture, food can connect us and we have wonderful times with family and friends while being surrounded with food. For a person struggling with an eating disorder, the idea of being surrounded with food is overwhelming and anxiety-provoking. Those struggling with eating disorders are consumed with thoughts of the food and fears that they will lose control. They have to either think of lies to tell others about why they’re not eating or avoid the chip bowl at all costs, out of fear that if they have one, they won’t be able to stop.
If you are currently in treatment for an eating disorder, I encourage you to openly communicate with your therapist about your concerns for the holidays. It is helpful to come up with a plan to cope with this time of year. If you are a loved one of someone that is struggling, try to approach your loved one with compassion and empathy. Understand that this may be incredibly difficult for them. Try to be a part of their recovery by encouraging them to talk to their therapist and be a part of their plan to deal with the holidays. If you are a parent, talk to your child about what their comfort level is with extended family knowing about the struggles. It could be really helpful to have a discussion with any extended family that may be visiting for the holidays ahead of time. Explain what your child is going through and kindly ask them to refrain from commenting on your child’s appearance and food and body talk in general. Unfortunately, we can’t totally remove the challenges that face those struggling with eating disorders around the holidays. However, we can try to make the holidays an environment that is as supportive and conducive to recovery as possible.
Wishing you and your families a happy and healthy holiday and wellness on your way to finding your State of Balance.
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Binge And Restrict Cycle
Eating Disorder Specialist
Healthy Self Vs. Eating Disorder