It’s like clockwork — somewhere around the middle of October every year — I find myself handing out the same lists to all of my patients with eating disorders. The lists are called things like, “10 Ways to Survive the Holidays with an Eating Disorder.”
(You can do a quick search on Google to find these lists; there are many different versions online).
It’s true: the holidays are typically a challenging time for individuals with eating disorders
. During the holidays, we are all confronted with many social situations during which there is an emphasis on food:
- Christmas cookies
- Hanukah celebrations
- Meals with extended family
- The normalization of overeating
- An expectation that you should feel grateful about food/plenty/bounty
From my chair as a therapist, I commonly hear my patients with eating disorders talk about how much they dread the holidays. We begin to plan months in advance for how they will manage when Aunt Maggie tells them they look great since they lost/gained weight, when there are appetizers on the table for the whole afternoon, when they are in an extended family members’ home and there are no safe options at mealtime, when they feel all alone and they don’t know how to manage feeling full, etc.
There are also a host of additional stressors around the holidays that can heighten our fears and anxieties:
- Having less privacy
- Reduced ability to control your environment
- Being out of your routine
- Increased observation of what you are eating or not eating
- Fear of weight gain
Let’s not forget about the obligation to attend multiple parties where you have to dress up, often formally, and present your best foot forward — all while managing anxiety about the food or your body.
It is no small task to ask the average person to handle all of this, but it is a lot
to ask of someone struggling with their relationship with food and their body.
Should you postpone treatment until after the holidays?
As therapists, we typically see that people are hesitant to enter an eating disorder treatment center
during the holidays. Some of their concerns include things along these lines:
- We’re just too busy
- We will be traveling
- I have plans with relatives
- I’ll just start treatment in the New Year
- Can’t it just wait a few more weeks? Won’t people wonder what’s happening if our daughter/son/loved one is absent this year?
While these concerns make sense on some level, there are also many reasons to consider starting treatment before or during the holidays.
If you put yourself in the shoes of the person impacted by the eating disorder, you may feel more empathy for just how difficult the holidays can be. Individuals with eating disorders aren’t just not enjoying
the holidays; often, they are just hoping to survive
them. When you understand how painful this can be, it makes sense to seek treatment sooner than later.
Five reasons to seek eating disorder treatment now
1. To “cope ahead”
In eating disorder treatment
, we build support and learn ways to manage stressful scenarios more effectively — rather than just try to recover after the stressful scenarios have already occurred.
2. To make good use of time off
Individuals often have more flexible schedules during the holidays: college students may get a month off from classes; younger individuals may have one to two weeks off of school. Those in the work force may have additional time away from their usual schedules.
3. To benefit from insurance deductibles having been met
Financially speaking, towards the end of the year, insurance deductibles may have already been met, leaving just the co-pay for treatment services in some instances.
Learn more about insurance and eating disorder treatment.
4. The holidays can still be celebrated, just with additional support
This may come as a surprise. Many treatment centers are keenly aware that their patients, despite needing a higher level of care, may still wish to recognize or participate in aspects of the holiday season. Towards this aim, Eating Recovery Center of Chicago
creates special experiences for patients — including traditional holiday meals, options to partake in the planning/cooking/serving of the food, service projects for local charities, outings to see holiday lights, challenge passes for patients to buy gifts for family members, challenge snacks of holiday treats, and more.
5. Why wait to get help — when eating disorders are dangerous?
Eating disorders are severe, life-threatening illnesses and these conditions can worsen when treatment is delayed. Timely attention to serious eating disorder symptoms
is necessary. Think about this: Would you delay treatment for another life-threatening medical condition?
In the end, it is worth considering the benefits of pursuing treatment during the holidays. And it isn’t just true for eating disorders. Those with mood, anxiety, or other mental health concerns may also benefit from seeking treatment sooner than later. To learn more about what a treatment team can do to support you or your loved one during the holiday season, feel free to reach out to the clinical staff with questions.
Remember this: even if seeking treatment means that the holiday looks different for your family this year, it is because you are pursuing well-being, health, and support — all of which are certainly values to celebrate.
Angela Picot Derrick is a clinical psychologist and the Senior Director of Clinical Services at Eating Recovery Center of Chicago and Insight Behavioral Health Centers. Insight Behavioral Health Centers provides specialized treatment for mood and anxiety disorders at five Chicago, Illinois treatment centers and one center located north of Austin, Texas in Round Rock.
Dr. Derrick has studied and treated eating and mood disorders for over 15 years and is honored to help her clients build hope, self-compassion and resilience as they work towards recovery.