The holidays, as expressed by most Christmas songs, are the most wonderful time of the year for many. Amidst gatherings, dinners, snowy days, and Christmas lights landscapes, happiness prevails. However, not everyone experiences the same enthusiasm at the thought of the holidays approaching. The holiday season can be a particularly stressful time for individuals suffering from eating disorders. It is especially vital during these times of increased solitude and apprehension to keep in mind the internal battles of people with such struggles and provide them with as much support as possible.
There is no set mold for the appearance, symptoms displayed, and overall experience of an individual struggling with an eating disorder. Approximately 30 million people in the United States currently struggle with an eating disorder, with women between the ages of 12 and 35 being the most common age range of onset. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
A variety of factors play a role in the development of an eating disorder. This may include experiencing pressure to be socially acceptable, emotional problems, stress, and family history. In general, an eating disorder is typically characterized by severe preoccupation with food and weight. Behaviors that emerge from this can have severe, even life-threatening consequences on the health of individuals and their body’s ability to attain proper nutrition.
Because eating disorders commonly entail intense preoccupation with food, the arrival of the holidays can lead to a significant escalation in the symptoms of people suffering from them. A major part of the holiday celebrations is the presence of large amounts of food: Thanksgiving feasts, Christmas treats, alcoholic beverages during New Year’s Eve, etc. Just the mere anticipation of the festivities with their often high-calorie meals can make it more difficult for people with eating disorders to manage their relationship with food.
Patients at Center for Change— a treatment center that helps women and adolescent girls struggling with eating disorders— asked some of their patients to share their experiences during the holidays as they battle their illness.
“Over the past few years, during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season I have felt horrible. I felt trapped and like the food was out to get me. I lied on endless occasions to avoid all of the parties and big dinners that go along with the holidays.”
“The holiday season is always the most difficult time of year in dealing with my eating disorder. Holidays, in my family, tend to center around food. The combination of dealing with the anxiety of being around family and the focus on food tends to be a huge trigger for me to easily fall into my eating disorder behaviors. I need to rely on outside support to best cope with the stresses of the holidays.”
These patient anecdotes reveal the pure anxiety and stress invoked by the holiday season. For people dealing with anorexia, high levels of guilt and the fear of gaining weight can prevent them from indulging in any activity involving food. Individuals with severe binge-eating disorder or bulimia are more prone to be enticed by binge eating and resulting purges because of this emphasis on food. As a result, they often seek methods of self-punishment and feel shame for performing such behaviors.
Despite the frightening aspect of gatherings during the holidays for people battling eating disorders, there is a large amount of room for loved ones to step in and provide support during these difficult times. Additionally, a variety of coping methods can help ease some of the apprehension emerging during the holiday season.
A couple of suggestions for coping with an eating disorder during the holidays:
- Have a plan. If you are following a meal plan, try to stick with it over the holidays. It may be wise to consider factors that can make it harder to stick with the meal plan ahead of time, such as lacking access to typical food items.
- Have a support system. If you have a treatment team, talk to them ahead of time and explain your concerns so they can assist you in developing strategies to cope with your worries. In general, whether it is a friend or professional, have someone you can reach out to during times you experience high levels of stress and anxiety.
- Prioritize mental health and self-care. The stress during the holidays can be overwhelming. Partaking in activities to ease this stress is crucial. These may include meditation, going for a walk, calling a friend, or playing board games with family.
- Give yourself a break. It is normal to eat more food during the holidays. Many people do so and it is okay. Allow yourself to eat foods you may have typically avoided and do not punish yourself for feeling full or eating larger quantities than your regular amount. If you happen to binge or purge, just move forward and try to get back on track. Do not beat yourself up for enjoying meals during these times.
If a friend or loved one of yours is battling an eating disorder, here a few ways you can support them:
- Do not focus too much on food
- Spend time with your loved one
- Try to partake in activities that do not have food as the primary focus, such as board games or singing carols
- Let them know you support them ahead of time and make agreements on how you can best support them in case they experience stress or anxiety
- Allow your loved ones to eat an amount they are comfortable with
- Be patient
- Do not allow them to spend too much time isolated