It’s hard to think of the holidays without thinking of food and lots of it. During this season, there is plenty of togetherness for families, friends and coworkers and just about every get-together is centered around food. More food is prepared, provided and shared than anyone needs. For many people, it’s a time for extreme overindulgence.
If you have a loved one who struggles with an eating disorder, the holiday season can be especially challenging. Even though it should be a time of celebration and joy, for someone with an eating disorder, the holidays are a time of increased stress and a greater sense of inner turmoil. What does a person with an eating disorder need from others during the holidays?
Less Emphasis on Food
As families and friends gather for reunions and socializing, it should be a happy, peaceful time, but for someone with anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, it may be the most stressful time of the year. There may be talk of creative recipes or delicious food, but conversations that focus on food are difficult to listen to or participate in for anyone with an eating disorder.
At just about any family gathering, there is probably at least one person who might notice that the relative with an eating disorder is not eating much and will make comments about it. It’s hard to understand that someone with anorexia may find the sight or smell of food terrifying, or that eating even a little more than usual may make him or her feel guilty or out of control.
Your loved one needs to feel that family gatherings are a safe place where no one will call attention to how much he or she is eating and that discussions won’t dwell on food. Even stares or glances from people who seem to be critical or quizzical can be too much to bear. Conversations should not focus on food, diet or weight but on family and activities.
Being around large groups of people may feel threatening and uncomfortable to someone who has an eating disorder. Crowds can cause a real sense of isolation and a deep-seated feeling of being different from everyone else. The more people who are at a gathering, the greater the chance that someone will make an inappropriate comment or try to insist that your loved one eat more than he or she is comfortable with.
Being around crowds can make a person with an eating disorder feel unsafe or conspicuous. It may seem like other people continually notice how much food is being eaten or not eaten and how many trips to the bathroom are taken. It can be helpful to your loved one to have fewer guests or to suggest activities that will require breaking into smaller circles.
At the same time, be aware that your loved one may try to isolate. Try to encourage him or her not to completely avoid participating in social gatherings.
Love, Understanding and Support
There are things you can do to help your loved one with an eating disorder during the holidays. It may help to encourage your loved one to bring his or her own food rather than being expected to take part in the feast laid out on the table.
It’s important to offer compassion and respect no matter what is going on. If guests start to talk about food, diets or weight gain, help to steer the conversation to a different topic. Plan activities that don’t center around food, such as singing carols or playing games. Your loved one will appreciate quieter and less-stimulating activities.
Encourage your loved one to make time for support groups or appointments with therapists. Extra involvement of people in a support network can make a big difference in your loved one’s ability to cope during the holidays.
It’s also important to take care of your own needs and to accept that you may not be able to say and do all the right things. Your loved one’s eating disorder is not your fault, and he or she may reject your efforts to be helpful. Try to let him or her know that you want to be supportive and that you need to know what his or her needs are. It’s not your job to try to fix your loved one or to try to control everything that goes on. Instead, your role is to offer love and understanding so that you can become a safe and trusted source of comfort and support.