Eating disorders are certainly not seasonal illnesses. People who suffer from these disorders do not have symptoms just a few months a year, like those who suffer from hay fever or another seasonal allergy. Nevertheless, there are times of year that are particularly sensitive or challenging for people with eating disorders, or with problematic eating habits that may develop into an eating disorder.
These are times of year with significant eating disorder triggers, including things like family pressure (real or perceived) or times when losing weight and getting fit are trending topics everywhere you look. Living with an eating disorder is never easy, but these seasons of the year can be exceptionally trying for people struggling with these painful illnesses.
Springtime Sparks Eating Disorders
Every spring, the risky behaviors that can develop into full-blown eating disorders can be seen more frequently everywhere you look. These behaviors include strict dieting, ambitious exercise routines and other strategies for quickly losing weight. Some people try to lose weight in the springtime with an eye on the past—many of us overindulge during the holidays, and make New Year’s resolutions to drop any excess pounds and get into shape. Other people are looking toward the future as they pursue a weight loss goal. The weather is warming up, the hot season of swimsuits and minimal clothing is around the corner, and many people dream of a slimmer figure before that time arrives.
The majority of people who put themselves on a diet or buy a gym membership early in the New Year will not develop an eating disorder. But a small number of people may begin a pattern of disordered eating and calorie purging that becomes a full-blown illness.
Another Level of Holiday Season Stress
The holiday season is equal parts magic and stress for many adults. For many others, the ratio of stress to magic is much greater, between the pressure and financial stress of gift giving, travel headaches, family reunions and other seasonal frustrations.
For people with eating disorders, the holidays can be a particularly painful time of year. Many are horrified by the prospect of reuniting with family members; their low self-esteem and distorted body image leading them to fear that their family will judge or even dislike them for being overweight. People with eating disorders may also worry that being in close quarters with family members during holiday festivities will make it harder for them to conceal their disorder from their loved ones.
Of course, families aren’t the only source of stress during the holiday season. Food is often everywhere, and it is often unhealthy. Holiday treats start to appear in workplaces, at social gatherings and especially at family get-togethers. This presents many opportunities for binging, and the holidays often bring an escalated cycle of binging and purging for people suffering from bulimia.
Days of Birth and Eating Disorders
Another interesting and mysterious angle to the way different times of year impact eating disorders is the frequency with which eating disorder patients have birthdays in certain months of the year.
A 1996 study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that May birthdays were the most common among all patients with eating disorders, and that birthdays in May occurred at rates that were notably higher than in the general population. However, March birthdays were the most common among younger patients, once again at rates notably higher than in the population as a whole.
Seasonal birthday patterns have been previously identified for a variety of mental illnesses. June and August are the significant months for neuroses and personality disorders, while January and February are the months of notable birth variation for schizophrenia and affective disorders.
Currently, researchers have very few solid ideas about what these season of birth month variations might mean. Some have hypothesized some form of link between schizophrenia, affective disorders and early-onset eating disorders, since both involve birth month variations in the first quarter of the year.