Happy Holidays: A Loved One’s Guide to a Recovery-Focused Season Icon

Happy Holidays: A Loved One’s Guide to a Recovery-Focused Season
While the holidays can be challenging for individuals and families in treatment for an eating disorder, they can also be a time of special and meaningful moments and experiences. The holidays can provide an opportunity to connect with loved ones, participate in religious or spiritual ceremonies, and celebrate one another with gifts, family rituals, and traditions. 
 
An individual’s needs during the holidays will depend upon their level of recovery. Someone new to treatment without solid footing in recovery will have different needs than someone else a few years post-treatment. Nevertheless, there are a few general guidelines loved ones can keep in mind when approaching the holidays. 
 
  1. Talk with the individual in treatment (perhaps with a therapist present) about what the upcoming holidays will involve. For instance, discuss where the days will be spent and who will attend. Are there any special circumstances around food to keep in mind? This is a time to identify potential challenges (whether they are food related or otherwise.) As an example, will a family member who notoriously comments on weight or food be present? Will there be two hours of appetizers prior to the main meal? Plan ahead as much as possible and also plan to be flexible. What if details change at the last minute? Acknowledge this as a possibility so that it doesn’t feel so startling if it occurs. 
  2. Next, identify what the individual’s needs are and create a plan for how to address them. You might start by asking your loved one directly, what do they need to support their recovery? I have a client who makes it known that she will need to take quiet time to herself at some point in the day, and then no one in her family is concerned when she takes a 30-minute break in her room to listen to music, breathe, or nap. Another client eats a planned snack if dinner will be later than anticipated so as to keep to a meal plan. Yet another client uses a toolkit of soothing objects (pictures, music, quotes, scented lotion) as needed throughout the day for calming. 
  3. Offer to be the support person for the individual during any events or gatherings. For instance, if the individual is struggling, they should know that they can glance at you, hug you, or pull you aside for a quick chat to bolster them up. Sometimes just having a supportive other present can help the individual not feel so alone. 
  4. Encourage your loved one to seek additional support. Suggest that they utilize a positive recovery-minded support who is outside of the setting and could be available to text or call during the day.
  5. Think carefully about serving alcohol. Consider minimizing availability and amount of alcohol in order to promote a stable and grounded environment.
  6. If appropriate for the stage in recovery, take a light walk. Consider using mindfulness skills to notice the surroundings and activate the five senses. A mindful walk might include noticing the holiday decorations, smelling the fresh air, and feeling the contact of your feet on the sidewalk. 
  7. Emphasize connection with family and friends over the food. For instance, play a board game or card game that involves everyone. Participate in gift-giving or a shared activity.
  8. Watch what you (and others) say. De-emphasize food talk, such as discussing specific recipes or sharing diets or evaluating food trends. Make it known that this is a non-diet-talk environment.
  9. Pick an intention for the holiday together. Perhaps it is connection, peace, giving or fun. Structure activities, conversations and experiences to cultivate these qualities. For instance, attend religious services together, go caroling, volunteer in a soup kitchen, visit a lights festival or parade. 
  10. Finally, set expectations for yourself and your loved one appropriately. For yourself, know that you cannot “fix” or “solve” your loved one’s difficulties, nor is it your place to do so. Commit to being present, patient and kind. For your loved one, they should expect that some challenges will arise around the holidays and these difficulties make sense and don’t have to lead to a set-back. Prepare for reality as it is, not as you want it to be. This will help set you and your loved one up for having the best possible holiday season this year.  
Families may wish to watch Dr. Stephanie Setliff, the Medical Director at ERC Dallas, during her television interview on the topic of navigating holidays with an eating disorder.
 
Watch the interview here.
 
Families looking for additional resources can access the Eating Disorder Family Connection Facebook page.
 
Find support here.
 
Angela Picot Derrick is a clinical psychologist and Senior Clinical Advisor 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. 
 
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