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Holiday stress and eating disorders treatment

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While the holidays can be a joyous time of year, seasonal gatherings, traditions and obligations can also be a source of stress than can intensify eating disordered thoughts and behaviors. However, despite the increased stress associated with this time of year, and the increased eating disordered thoughts and behaviors that often accompany this stress, many patients and families opt to delay seeking eating disorder treatment until “after the holidays” to avoid disruption of plans or departure from holiday traditions.

“This tendency to put off treatment during the holiday season is not specific to eating disorders—it is common with many medical and psychiatric illnesses warranting intensive treatment to restore health,” explains Jeana Cost, MS, NCC, Director of Admissions at Eating Recovery Center, an international center providing the full spectrum of eating disorders treatment to male and female adults, adolescents and children. “However, it is important that individuals, friends and families understand that postponing eating disorder treatment may further jeopardize one’s mental and physical status.”

According to Cost, three reasons are commonly given for delaying admission to a treatment program to address these serious illnesses.

“We have plans over the holiday vacation/break.”
During the holidays, many people have time off of school and work, which can create a lack of structure. Most people with eating disorders need structure each day in order to keep them on track with recovery progress, or to keep their behaviors from intensifying. The lack of daily structure during the holiday season can exacerbate eating disordered thoughts and behaviors, which often results in emergency room visits, hospital stays or longer lengths of stay when patients finally decide to seek treatment. On the other hand, holiday schedules can also involve too much structure. A calendar over-full with parties, meals with family and friends and travel can be equally overwhelming as a lack of structure to someone suffering from an eating disorder.

“Time with friends and family will help me recover.”
Most people spend their holidays with extended family and/or large groups of friends, and this time together can often be happy and fulfilling. However, interactions with family and friends can also be stressful, and can the focus on the individual struggling with an eating disorder and create discomfort. Increasing eating disorder behaviors to deal with holiday-induced stress is common. Further increasing stress related to these gatherings of family and friends is the fact that many events and traditions revolve around food and eating, including holiday meals, office potlucks and cookie exchanges. It is not uncommon for this increased emphasis on food and socializing around meals and eating to increase bingeing and purging behaviors or increase restriction due to heightened anxiety.

“I’ll just continue with my outpatient treatment during the holidays.”
Often times, outpatient psychiatrists, physicians, therapists and dietitians take time off for during the holiday season for vacations, which lowers the accountability and lessens support available for someone who is used to regular appointments.

Eating disorders are serious, life-disrupting, and sometimes life-threatening illnesses at any time of year. However, the holidays can be particularly painful and challenging for patients and families alike. Achieving—or protecting—eating disorder recovery during the holiday season is possible with the right support and an understanding of the importance of structured treatment to address increasing thoughts and behaviors.

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