Supporting a Loved One with an Eating Disorder during the Holdiay Season

Holidays tend to be a family-dinner centric occasion for many people. This can be a difficult time for people with an eating disorder for a multitude of reasons; not just because of their challenging relationship with food, but sometimes because of the toll family dynamics can take on someone’s mental health as well. Many people already report a rise in stress during the holiday season, so for people living with eating disorders this pressure and stress can be especially exacerbated.

If you are spending the holidays with a loved one with an eating disorder, you may be wondering how to best support them to make their holiday experience a joyful one. For more information on how to be a good friend and supporter to a loved one with an eating disorder during the holiday season, keep reading or click here for more information and access to our experienced team of mental health professionals here in Chicago.

Why are the holidays so difficult?

So why do the holidays often bring mixed feelings? When we gather with family, the ghosts of the past can sneak into our celebrations and the marks of intergenerational trauma make themselves known. Research shows that tough times in our family history can affect our health and well-being. Things like tough childhoods might lead to problems like eating disorders, addiction, and heart troubles when we grow up.

Our existence is an intricate tapestry, intricately woven with threads of past experiences, familial connections, and environmental influences. These elements collectively shape our physical and mental health in ways that extend far beyond our conscious awareness. It is here in the midst of the holiday season, where the past and present collide, that these influences become most palpable. Coupled with triggering environments and societal pressures, these factors converge to make holidays feel overwhelming and anxiety-provoking, especially for individuals dealing with an eating disorder.

Truly understanding eating disorders

Statistics reveal that eating disorders are a challenge faced by nearly 30 million Americans today, making it highly likely that we'll encounter someone who has battled or is currently battling this issue. One of them may show up at your Thanksgiving table this year, whether or not you’re aware of it. Offering support rooted in empathy, and generally considering how food-centric holiday traditions affect all attendees can make a world of difference.

Empathy, distinct from sympathy and personal commiseration, involves truly grasping another person's perspective. Extending empathy becomes an even more intricate endeavor when confronting the intergenerational trauma and cultural influences that affect each individual’s attitude about food and their bodies. It can be a formidable task to step into someone else's shoes when their experiences are unique and vastly differ from your own. This challenge is particularly pronounced during holiday gatherings, where multiple generations converge, each bringing its distinct set of cultural and generational traditions and perspectives on mental health.

Yet, it's these very moments that call for empathy the most. Empathy has the power to bridge gaps and foster positive connections among individuals with diverse experiences, including those who’ve made it to your table with complex feelings about feeding their bodies. Just because we can't fully relate to someone else's struggles doesn't mean we can't acknowledge and validate them. Through empathy, we create a safe space for individuals to share their feelings, knowing they are being heard and respected. In the midst of complex family dynamics and holiday stress, empathy can be the glue that holds us together and makes the season more meaningful.

Advice for being a good friend

If you have a friend, partner, or cousin who is rewriting their relationship with food and their body and has made this information known to you, you can be their ally this holiday season. Here are the four most important points for supporting a friend with an eating disorder during the holidays:

  1. Open Communication: Encourage open and non-judgmental communication so your loved one feels comfortable sharing their concerns and triggers related to food and body image. This can also mean collaborating on meal plans or strategies for handling holiday meals. Offer to cook or choose restaurants that offer a variety of options, so they feel more in control.
  2. Respect Boundaries: Respect their choices regarding food and social events, and avoid pressuring them. Be understanding if they choose to opt out of certain gatherings.
  3. Mindful Conversations: Steer conversations away from food and diet-related topics, focusing instead on non-food-related subjects like hobbies and shared interests. Also be mindful of your language. Avoid praising weight loss or physical appearance changes. Likewise, avoid criticizing food choices or encouraging restrictive behavior.
  4. Emotional Support and Encouragement: Provide emotional support, celebrate their non-food-related achievements, and encourage them to seek professional help if they haven't already.

Holidays & eating disorders

Those with eating disorders can have a really difficult time coping during the holiday season. Helping someone to ensure their holiday season is as enjoyable in itself is a powerful form of validation and support.

Feel free to ask how you can best support someone during this time, and be flexible with their situation and answers. Asking for help can be difficult sometimes, so extend your support and make yourself available for your loved ones to support them in the best way for them this holiday season.

If you are a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, connect with Pure Health Center for a consultation, resources and support.

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