Holidays can be difficult and stressful for anyone, but for someone with an eating disorder, it can be especially difficult. It can be overwhelming to come home from college or even return from treatment and have to be faced with family gatherings, parties, social situations and food everywhere. Many holiday traditions center around various types of dishes and treats, which for someone with an eating disorder can cause a great deal of anxiety and discomfort. Whether someone is anorexic, bulimic or a binge eater, it can be incredibly taxing trying to navigate the social aspect of gatherings coupled with the apprehension of what they should eat.
For someone without an eating disorder, they may make a conscious effort to throw caution to the wind and indulge on various foods they wouldn’t normally eat or stick to only foods they feel are healthy and not deviating too much from their normal diet. For someone with an eating disorder this is paralyzing. They are overwhelmed by the choices, amount of food or feel there is nothing “safe” to eat. It can cause a great deal of stress trying to fool everyone that they are having a good time or enjoying those around them when their every thought is consumed by what they will eat, how they will eat it and when they can eat it, when no one is looking or will notice. They do not want anyone to pay attention to their behavior. They are hoping no one will check that they are eating at all, watching to be sure they ate enough or noticing the large quantities they may be ingesting at a rapid rate.
They feel all eyes are on them and every move they make. Although this may sound like paranoia it is because their eating disorder causes them to be very secretive about their eating habits and something they keep to themselves. They do not want to allow anyone into their private world and social situations tend to open a window into some of their destructive behaviors. This attention is considered a betrayal and can cause an angry, irritated or depressive reaction. This specific blog piece is to help those around the person with an eating disorder understand what they may be feeling and dealing with so they can be compassionate and aware of how to support this person through the holidays.
- If you are giving gifts, make sure they are not related to food, body shape, clothing or exercise. They should be gifts from the heart that embrace the person’s interests or something that will make them feel special.
- Give them some space. Don’t keep yourself so close that they feel like you are afraid to leave them alone. You can keep your eye on them from across the room.
- Ask if they would like help navigating the food situation or making a plan ahead of time to eliminate some of the stress.
- Have them eat their own devised meal before the social gathering or family get-together so the food becomes less of a focus.
- Come up with topics or jokes to redirect the conversation away from anyone bringing up the eating disorder or how the person looks. A party or family function is not the time to discuss it.
- Let the person know if they need to get some air or a breather that it is okay to help calm the anxiety.
- Bring the focus back to the holiday. Whether it is Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza or New Year’s Eve or Day, help them find the things they enjoy about the actual holiday. Watch a holiday movie, sing holiday songs, go to your place of religious services, or give a gift so it is truly a “holiday” they can enjoy and forget for a few moments.
- Let them know no matter what, they are loved.
Once the celebrating is over, that is the time to either continue with the support that is already in place or have the person evaluated to go into treatment. Eating disorders should not be ignored and if you do feel your loved one is suffering, it is very important to reach out sooner than later. It can be a life-threating and more serious than you recognize.