Surviving the Holidays with an Eating Disorder
For many people around the country, the holidays begin in November. However, Thanksgiving only marks the start of the onslaught of holiday celebrations.
For an individual with an eating disorder the holidays can prove especially difficult, and seemingly simple commitments such as attending a holiday gathering and reuniting with family can become sources of tremendous anxiety and immense emotional strain.
Food consumption is an integral component of holiday celebrations. According to the United States Census Bureau, Americans consume approximately 16.1 pounds of turkey annually, with nearly 31% of such consumption occurring during the winter holidays.
In addition to such food excess, the holiday season is also characterized by an increase in media advertisements promoting weight loss and other appearance-related motivations for entering the New Year with a newly toned body. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, the dieting industry earns upwards of $40 billion dollars per year, capitalizing on Americans’ preoccupation with food and weight.
With an approximate 13 million Americans struggling with binge eating disorders and 10 million Americans suffering from anorexia or bulimia nervosa, there is no shortage of prospective diet-industry consumers. However, various eating disorder support communities offer tools to aid in successfully navigating the holiday season without relapsing to familiar, destructive eating disorder behaviors.
Websites such as eatingdisorderhope.com provide audiences with a plethora of tips for surviving the holidays.
Recovery focused tips and skills include practicing Mindfulness skills during times of stress and emotional upset, practicing self-care by establishing boundaries relating to family and food, and appreciating the inner beauty in friends and family, with the hope of inspiring them to focus on these more meaningful attributes, too.
While these support mechanisms may assist individuals struggling with an eating disorder, the holidays can prove challenging, despite efforts to combat such difficulties.
“Thanksgiving and Christmas are really tough, especially when it comes to the food,” said a person in recovery. “Even though I didn’t spend Thanksgiving with my family this year I found it really easy to slip into holiday depression and look toward food to make me feel better.
On Thanksgiving night I went to an AA meeting, which helped. It was also helpful to call friends who could relate to having an eating disorder.”
While such traditions may prove difficult for those struggling with an eating disorder, health professionals continue to encourage clients to approach the holidays with an arsenal of tools enhancing one’s odds of braving the holiday season.
“The best way to get through the holidays with an eating disorder is to truly look for those people who provide you with the support you need, those who bring joy to your face, whether family, friends, or even fellow peers in recovery, so that with them you are able to find the comfort and freedom outside of your eating disorder struggle,” said Nader Armanios, Nutrition Assistant at New Dawn Treatment Center.
As asserted by Armanios, surviving the holidays is a difficult feat for an individual to handle solitarily, and therefore, individuals are encouraged to connect with other peers experiencing similar challenges.
“I didn’t go home for Thanksgiving this year,” said a patient in recovery.
“But a friend from program invited me to spend the evening with her family, which was a lot of fun and a lot less stressful that it could have been.”
It is common for individuals to isolate during the throws of their eating disorder, and in many regards, such isolation helps one maintain their addictive and destructive behaviors.
Previous research studies suggest that social withdrawal and anxiety related to social situations are common complaints among adults and adolescent with disordered eating (Zaitsoff, Fehon, & Grilo, 2009).
Research suggests that such isolation occurs from a deeply rooted fear of being negatively evaluated by peers. Therefore, in the attempt to avoid potential situations involving such evaluation, many individuals choose to isolate themselves from others, entirely.
This is a common defense mechanism during the holidays as such gatherings generally involve numerous attendees, and therefore, more opportunities for being evaluated by peers.
While there is no definitive cure for surviving the holidays, no tangible roadmap for navigating food-related social gatherings without reverting to unhealthy behaviors, it is possible to experience the holidays as a normal human being, rather than under the guise of an eating disorder.
“Of course my ED (eating disorder) wanted me to stay home and restrict or purge,” said a client at New Dawn Treatment Center. “But I decided to see what it would be like to do the opposite and I am glad that I did.”
Fairburn, C.G., Hay, P.J., & Welch, S.L. (1993). Binge eating and bulimia nervosa: Distribution and determinants. In C.G. Fairburn & G.T. Wilson, (Eds.), Binge Eating: Nature, Assessment, and Treatment (pp. 123-143). New York: Guilford.
Zaitsoff, S. L., Fehon, D. C., & Grilo, C. M. (2009). Social competence and social-emotional isolation and eating disorder psychopathology in female and male adolescent psychiatric inpatients¹. International Journal Of Clinical Health & Psychology, 9(2), 219-228.
Written by Kathleen Someah, Nutrition Assistant, New Dawn Treatment Centers
Published Date: December 5, 2012
Last Reviewed and Updated By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on February 16, 2018
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com, Help for Eating Disorders