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Holiday Stress and Eating Disorders: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

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The holidays can be a joyous time of year—delicious food and drink, time with friends and loved ones, and long-standing traditions honoring what many deem to be “the most wonderful time of the year.” Sounds great, right? Well, unfortunately, these very things that make the holidays special for so many people make this time of year particularly challenging for individuals struggling with or in recovery from an eating disorder.

Throughout the year, stress can be a powerful catalyst for eating disordered thoughts and behaviors for those that use control over food, weight and/or shape to manage anxiety. However, during the holiday season, there is heightened emphasis on food and gatherings often centering around rich, high-calorie seasonal fare. Furthermore, the holidays are the single time of year most likely to bring together friends and loved ones from near and far, some of whom may have played a role in the development or maintenance of the eating disorder. Heightened exposure to food, meals and painful dynamics in relationships can increase eating disordered behaviors, and threaten recovery for those that have taken the important step of seeking eating disorder treatment.

For individuals touched by eating disorders—including patients, families and friends—I encourage you to be aware of and avoid the following pitfalls that can cause additional stress during the holidays.

People-pleasing. By nature, those struggling with eating disorders tend to care deeply about others and often act in ways or agree to things to make friends and loved ones happy. Additionally, the social demands of the holiday season and the “spirit of giving” can make it easy to put the needs of others before our own needs. However, it’s important to politely decline requests that can add additional angst to an already stressful time of year, as stress can intensify unhealthy thoughts and behaviors around food, eating and body image.

Over-scheduling. Our calendars tend to fill up quickly during this time of year. Gatherings, holiday shopping, cookie exchanges, office parties, parades—the list of holiday events goes on and on. Don’t feel like you need to do everything. Exhaustion—both mental and physical—can challenge recovery, or cause individuals to engage in eating disordered behaviors. Be selective about your holiday RSVPs, and know that friends and family will understand your decision to abstain from certain activities in an effort to manage your anxiety.

“Testing” recovery. Because perfectionism is common among individuals that struggling with eating disorders, many people in recovery from their eating disorder try to “test” their recovery by agreeing to attend events and functions that are likely to involve triggers that could contribute to a relapse. These triggers can include large meals, or gatherings with friends and families where strained or unhealthy interpersonal relationships may cause stress or frustration. From both my personal experience, as well as over 30 years of specializing in eating disorder treatment as a therapist, I can attest that there is nothing “perfect” about recovery from such a complex illness. You don’t have to “prove” recovery to yourself or anyone else, so unless you’re at a really good place with food, weight and body image, there is no reason to set yourself up for a “holiday recovery challenge.” Take care of yourself and your recovery and don’t hesitate to set appropriate boundaries where needed.

Delaying treatment until the New Year. There’s no good reason to delay seeking treatment for an eating disorder if you’re struggling during the holidays. In my last article, I outlined some common reasons cited for delaying eating disorder treatment until the new year. While suggestions to delay treatment may be well-intentioned coming from friends and loved ones, I encourage you to prioritize your health above all else—vacations and traditions can wait, and loved ones will understand and support your decision.

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