Facing the Holiday Season with an Eating Disorder
Eating disorders are complex and often misunderstood mental health challenges that affect people of all ages and genders. Although the onset of many eating disorders occurs in early adolescence and the teen years, the physical and psychological difficulties associated with a difficult relationship with food can persist throughout one’s lifetime. While eating disorders are highly treatable conditions, there are times throughout the year when managing symptoms and triggers may be more challenging than others. One such example is the holiday season.
What are Common Teen Eating Disorders?
Statistics show the most commonly diagnosed eating disorders among Americans of all ages are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
Studies suggest between one and two percent of Americans will have anorexia at some point in their lifetime. Similar studies show approximately 5% of adolescent girls have anorexia. Anorexia is the most common among youth during their teen years. Without support and treatment, as many as 20% of people with anorexia will die due to complications related to their illness.
Signs and symptoms of anorexia
Many equate anorexia with a skinny appearance, but not everyone who has anorexia is thin or frail. It is possible to have anorexia but not be overly thin. It is also important to remember that what is considered a “low body weight” differs from one person to the next. As a result, it is necessary to be aware of signs and symptoms other than a thin appearance. Other symptoms of anorexia include:
- Difficulties with sleep
- Abnormal blood cell counts
- Irregular heart rate
- Thin hair that breaks or falls out
- Dry, yellow skin
- Late or lack of menstruation in biological females
- Skipping meals
- Frequent exercise
- Wearing baggy clothes to hide one’s appearance
- Frequent talk about body image or weight
- Avoiding food or refusing to eat
Bulimia is statistically the second most commonly diagnosed eating disorder. Studies indicate between one and three percent of the population has bulimia. Some youth with bulimia develop harmful eating patterns related to bulimia as young as age 5. Bulimia is more common among females, although an average of between five and fifteen percent of bulimics are male.
Signs and symptoms of bulimia
Like anorexia, bulimia is characterized by a preoccupation with weight gain. However, individuals with bulimia manage their concerns about weight differently. Someone with bulimia will binge on food and then engage in purging behaviors to “get rid” of the excess calories and prevent weight gain. In addition to purging behaviors such as vomiting and laxative abuse, other symptoms of bulimia include:
- Loss of control over eating, which leads to binge eating
- Fasting between binges
- Extreme preoccupation with weight and body shape
- Forced vomiting
- Using dietary supplements to avoid weight gain
- Going to the bathroom after eating
- Excessive exercise
- Damage to the gums and teeth
- Cheek and facial swelling from enlarged glands
- Scars, calluses, or sores on the backs of the hands and knuckles
Binge-eating disorder is sometimes confused with bulimia because the two illnesses share similar symptoms. However, the two conditions are separate diagnoses, and although binge eating is a common symptom, there are few other similarities. A recent study on eating disorders suggests approximately 1% of people have a problem with binge eating.
Signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder
As noted above, binge eating disorder is sometimes confused with (or considered to be the same as) bulimia. The key similarity between the two is the act of binge eating. While someone with a binge eating disorder will binge on food, they do not actively engage in activities to compensate for eating extra calories. Other signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder may be:
- Eating even when not hungry
- Overeating to the point of discomfort
- Eating in secret
- Feeling depressed, ashamed, or guilty about eating
What Are Tips for Managing the Holidays With An eating Disorder?
If you have or are in recovery from an eating disorder, the holiday season can lead to several challenges. Even if you have your symptoms under control and can confidently manage triggers and stressors, the holidays are not like other times of the year. Below are a few tips for safely and successfully managing the holidays with an eating disorder.
Plan ahead and check in with your support system
As the holiday season approaches, it is more important than any other time of year to remain in contact with your support system. For some, This may be your therapist, and for others, it may be members of the peer support group. If necessary, schedule appointments in advance with your provider or plan ahead to go to an extra support group throughout the week. Arranging a time to meet with your treatment provider can help you identify and practice coping tools in advance to ensure you can better manage stressful situations that will surely arise throughout the holiday season.
Have a strategy for managing social gatherings
The holidays are inevitably a time of many social and family gatherings. However, not everyone at each gathering shares the same concerns or needs that you may about maintaining your recovery. It is important to have a plan in place to manage the inevitable triggers that may occur. Depending on where you are in your recovery and your confidence in your coping strategies, this may involve limiting the number of scheduled events you go to, bringing a support person with you to help you at meals, or bringing a “safe” food dish with you to share. If you have a plan in place and you have arranged with your care providers and therapy team, try to adhere to it as closely as possible during holiday events.
Don’t be afraid to set boundaries
Another key for avoiding and managing triggers is to set (and stick to) your boundaries if conversations about food or other triggers arise during meals. For example, it may help to ask family, friends, or co-workers to avoid talking about food, diet, or body image with you or while you are around. This can limit your exposure to difficult conversation topics that may increase your stress and discomfort. It may also help to set a time limit or specific time to leave a social gathering.
Focus on self-care
With all of the festivities and expectation that accompanies the holiday season, it can be easy to lose sight of the importance of self-care for managing stressors and triggers. Self-care tools can also help you take the focus off the stressors associated with holiday meals and gatherings and place it on how to best take care of your needs. There is no singular “ideal” self-care tool that works well for everyone, so it is essential to find the practice that works best for you. Some examples or ideas are meditating, yoga, going for a walk, taking a bath, reading a book, or listening to music.
Self-care can be a relaxation technique for some, while it may involve exercise for others. Again, it does not matter which tool or technique you choose, just that your chosen method works for you when you need to reduce anxiety and calm your mind.
Avoid negative self-talk
Maintaining a specific eating pattern during the holiday season can be difficult. Remember that these challenges do not suggest or indicate you have failed or taken a step back in your recovery. Focusing on negative self-talk and thoughts will only worsen your outlook and darken your emotions. Instead, focus on positive affirmations and compassion for yourself. Remember that perfection is not necessary. Setting realistic goals and expectations can help you keep on track in your recovery without increased stress and worry. Also, remember to practice forgiveness. If you experience a stumble or setback, acknowledge it, forgive yourself and move on.
Try to avoid common relapse triggers
There are several potential relapse triggers someone in eating disorder recovery may face during the holidays, but two might be more common than others: drugs and alcohol. Although a few drinks or using another recreational substance may offer temporary relief from stressors, substance abuse can cause more harm than good in the long term.
Many substances, including alcohol, are depressants that can worsen certain emotions, including anxiety and depression. Others act within your body, stimulating your appetite and increasing food cravings. Consider a mocktail or alcohol-free alternative if you attend a gathering and would like to have a drink with other partygoers.
Make a gratitude list
Taking a moment to focus on the things you are grateful for allows you to focus on your accomplishments. Consider keeping a journal where you write a few things you are grateful for daily. This practice is an excellent example of self-care and helps focus your attention on the positive steps you have taken so far in your recovery.
The holiday season is a time of excitement and joy, but when you are in recovery from an eating disorder, there can be challenges and concerns that pop up from time to time. Fortunately, with some pre-planning and support, you can stay on track with your recovery and enjoy all the holiday season has to offer.
If you find triggers become challenging to manage, it is important to reach out for help. Even if you have previously completed a treatment program, the team at The Meadowglade can support you to ensure you can stay on track in your recovery. To learn more about treatment for eating disorders or if you need help getting back on track in your recovery, contact a member of our admissions team at The Meadowglade today.