10 Reasons to Seek Help for an Eating Disorder in Summer – Dr. Ovidio Bermudez & Jeana Cost
While many people spend summertime relaxing and enjoying trips or time off, summer can bring an increase of symptoms for individuals with eating disorders. People often say things like, “we will wait and hope that things get better” or “we have more important priorities” — but this sends the wrong message. Would you take the same approach with any other serious illness?
Delaying treatment for an eating disorder, due to a summer job, summer courses or summer vacation plans can lead to serious problems.
- The increased “free time” that occurs during summer tends to create more “alone time” and eating disorder behaviors thrive in isolation and secrecy.
- Body image issues may increase during summer months, as we tend to wear less clothing and show more skin.
- Wearing a bathing suit can be particularly challenging for many.
- The lack of structure in the summer months can lead to unhealthy routines like skipping meals or altering your normal sleep habits. This can make eating disorder and mental health symptoms worse.
- Changes in the summer schedule can lead to an increase in physical activity and excessive exercise.
- Co-occurring mental health issues, like depression and substance abuse benefit from treatment and are not likely to go away in summer months.
- Getting back into activities with “old friends” or even “new friends” can add to the social demand and thus increase overall stress.
- Eating disorder behaviors may be exacerbated if stress increases due to new activities (taking courses or starting a new job) in summer.
- Eating disorders are challenging to treat, require specialized treatment and have a high relapse rate. Anorexia nervosa, in particular, has the highest mortality rate of all mental health issues.
- The longer that you wait to seek help for an eating disorder, the sicker you may become, making future treatment even more challenging.
There are a number of reasons why people don't seek help for an eating disorder in summer.
Here are three of the more common ones we hear:
“We have plans all summer.” A “really busy summer” may be well-intended but it can also increase stress levels and exacerbate symptoms. For example, travel to unfamiliar places can be stressful and worsen food challenges. Family gatherings — where comments and interactions can be misinterpreted by the sufferer — can further erode one’s self-image or body image.
On the other hand, summer break, even with the best-laid plans, can actually lead to a lack of structure. Most people with eating disorders need structure each day to keep them on track with their meal plan, interrupt compensatory behaviors, and maintain an overall recovery plan. For others, a solid structure keeps them from getting into their behaviors more deeply. When you couple a lack of summer structure with a delay in treatment, eating disordered thoughts and behaviors can worsen. This could lead to emergency room visits, hospital stays or longer lengths of stay in a specialized treatment facility.
“I’ll get better by spending time with friends and family.” Many of us spend summer months with extended family and friends. While this time can be fun, it can also be stressful. At summer gatherings, friends and family members may tend to focus more on an individual with an eating disorder, possibly increasing discomfort. Increased stress and anxiety could lead to an increase in eating disorder behaviors, including restricting behaviors. Summer parties focused on eating and drinking alcohol may increase bingeing and purging behaviors and substance abuse issues.
Another potential pitfall is when children and adolescents stay with family members or other family friends. It may seem as though “all is well” if these caretakers are unfamiliar with eating disorder behaviors, but individuals may just be unaware of restriction, excessive exercise, or purging behaviors that are taking place.
“I’ll just go to outpatient treatment during summer.” Often times, providers take time off during summer; support groups may have long breaks. This can lower the accountability and support available for someone who really should have regular appointments during recovery.
Treatment should always occur at the necessary level of care given the clinical circumstances. “Buying time” at a lower level of care than is required is not in the patient’s best interest. Additionally, getting the necessary help during summer months may make it less likely to disrupt school schedules and academic lapses in the fall.
The focus should be on wellness and recovery
Families have many factors to consider when choosing to seek help for an eating disorder. In many ways, the priorities need to be 1) personal wellness and 2) a life of recovery.
We understand that a number of reasons could lead you not to seek help for an eating disorder, including financial issues. But if you are struggling, or know that a loved one is struggling, don’t delay seeking help any time of year. Call a professional for guidance. The courage you draw upon to choose treatment now will inevitably lead to improved outcomes and improved well-being.
A special note to healthcare providers:
Healthcare professionals can be particularly helpful during the summer months. We encourage you to keep your patients’ best interests in mind. If you work with an individual who continues to delay needed intensive care for an eating disorder, we invite you to share with them the specific reasons why they shouldn’t be delaying care, including the fact that, not only can it be a fatal decision, delaying care will inevitably worsen the illness and they will likely enter treatment significantly sicker.