How To Help Those With Eating Disorders During The Holidays

By Victoria Kim 11/20/18

Experts offer a variety of useful tips on how to help those living with eating disorders navigate the triggering holiday season.

Worried woman standing in front of a table thinking about relative with eating disorder

The holiday season isn’t fun for everyone. Spending time with family, paired with indulgent meals, can be overwhelming in and of itself. For some—including people living with eating disorders—it can be a triggering time.

An estimated 30 million Americans struggle with an eating disorder, defined as “serious and often fatal illnesses that cause severe disturbances to a person’s eating behaviors,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). If your loved one is among them, you can support them this holiday season.

Bustle asked a few experts on how best to approach the issue.

“The holiday season usually means three things: Lots and lots of… food, lots of time with extended family, and lots of unstructured time. Those three things can be incredibly rewarding, but for someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, they can also be incredibly difficult,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Stephanie Zerwas.

Help them prioritize their recovery

Your loved one's recovery comes first. Let them know that it’s okay to sacrifice some holiday traditions in the name of feeling well. “Your loved one likely has a difficult time putting themselves first. They may need you to do it,” says Alex Gonçalves, PhD, Assistant Vice President and Clinical Director of The Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders in Philadelphia.

Go over what to expect

Having a conversation with your loved one may help suss out their fears, and how you can help. “Ask what your loved one is anticipating the holiday will be like, both the joys and the challenges. Ask what might be helpful. The discussion can provide some relief from the intense feeling of isolation that often accompanies an eating disorder. And you just might gain an idea or two about how to help,” says Gonçalves.

Come up with a plan

It may help to have a relapse prevention plan ahead of time, so your loved one is not caught off guard in the middle of a gathering. This may involve checking in with his/her treatment provider beforehand.

Sticking to a routine, like an eating schedule, can also provide structure and keep your loved one from getting off track.

Know the symptoms

Does your loved one seem anxious or emotional? Intense mood swings, depression, anxiety and feelings of isolation are all symptoms of eating disorders.

“They may experience intense self-judgment for not feeling so happy when everyone else appears to be,” says Gonçalves.

At their worst, eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa can cause thinning of the bones, damage to vital organs, infertility and death. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder.

It’s not your place to minimize your loved one’s eating disorder

Even if you are being nice, it won’t help to downplay an eating disorder. “Eating disorders don’t respond to logic and argument. They do respond to love, empathy and compassion. Instead of trying to fix your family member by showing them the error of their eating disorder thoughts, let them know that you have empathy for how they are feeling, and ask them what kind of help they would like,” says Zerwas.

For eating disorder help, call the National Eating Disorder Association helpline: 800-931-2237

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