Eating Disorder Treatment During the Holidays: Insight for Referring Professionals from Jeana Cost
While the holiday season can be a joyous time of year, seasonal gatherings, traditions and obligations can also be a source of stress than can intensify eating disordered thoughts and behaviors.
Despite the increased stress associated with this time of year, many patients and families opt to delay seeking eating disorder treatment until “after the holidays” to avoid disruption of plans or departure from holiday traditions.
Recognizing the need for a higher level of eating disorder care in their patients, referring professionals can be a powerful champion for seeking effective treatment in a timely manner.
Below, I list common reasons given for delaying admission to an intensive treatment program, as well as messages that referring professionals can share to communicate that postponing treatment may further jeopardize one’s mental and physical status.
“We have plans over the holiday vacation/break.”
Typically, individuals have time off of school and work over the holidays, which can create a lack of structure. Most people with eating disorders need structure each day in order to keep them on track with recovery, or to keep them from getting into their behaviors more deeply. This lack of structure in addition to the delay of treatment can exacerbate eating disordered thoughts and behaviors, which often results in emergency room visits, hospital stays or longer lengths of stay when patients finally seek treatment. While many holiday breaks lack structure, the opposite can occur as well. Holiday schedules can be jam-packed with events, visits and other calendar items, which can be equally overwhelming as a lack of structure.
“Time with friends and family will help me.”
Most people spend their holidays around extended family and/or large groups of friends, which can intensify the focus on the patient and create more discomfort. While time with family and friends can be joyous, it can also be stressful, and increasing eating disorder behaviors to deal with that stress is common. Furthermore, most holiday events with family and friends center on food, including holiday meals, office potlucks and cookie exchanges. The increased emphasis on food and socializing around meals and eating can increase bingeing and purging behaviors or increase restriction due to heightened anxiety.
“I’ll just continue with my outpatient treatment during the holidays.”
Often times, outpatient teams take time off or vacations during the holiday season, which lowers the accountability and lessens support available for someone who is used to regular appointments.
Jeana Cost, MS, LPC, NCC, is Eating Recovery Center’s Admissions Director and has been with the center since 2010.