Equip Family Mentor Alexia Davis says she knew something was wrong with her loved one who was in eating disorder recovery when certain hallmark symptoms reappeared over the holiday season.
“Signs that alerted me to my family member relapsing were going back to old coping skills or habits, such as isolating and limiting their food choices,” Davis says. “I wish I had looked out for food restriction and avoidance, and expressions of anger anxiety leading up to the holidays.”
Davis isn’t alone — the holiday season is often a challenging time for those affected by an eating disorder. Family dynamics, a heightened focus on food, and financial concerns can trigger an enormous amount of stress and exacerbate eating disorder thoughts and behaviors.
For some families, the unusual amount of alone time with loved ones might set off alarm bells that someone could be struggling with a new or developing eating disorder. Maybe a family member has returned from college and something seems off with their behavior. Or perhaps a cousin, uncle, aunt, or friend is expressing or exhibiting food, weight, or exercise concerns that weren’t an issue in the past.
So what can caregivers do when eating disorder signs rear their head over the holidays?
The signs to look out for
Eating disorders show up in a multitude of ways—sometimes the symptoms appear as textbook examples of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, and sometimes they’re subtle, nuanced, and easy to miss, especially given that diet culture has seeped into every corner of our society. Some warning signs to potentially look out for include:
- Expressing fear of gaining weight
- Uncontrolled episodes of overeating
- Distress over body image
- Lack of interest in eating based on how foods taste, look, or smell
- Compulsive exercise
But given the “new year, new me” mentality around New Year’s resolutions, weight loss conversations can be rampant, making it even tougher to distinguish what’s considered “typical” and what’s problematic.
“Because we live in a world where disordered eating is normalized, especially during the holidays, sometimes early signs of eating disorders can go unnoticed or even be seen as something to praise,” says Elizabeth Gordon, Psy.D, licensed clinical psychologist at Equip. “Many eating disorders begin as diets, so loved ones should be on the lookout for any talk about wanting to lose weight (even just a few pounds), eat ‘healthier,’ look more ‘fit’ or ‘toned,’ save up calories for holiday meals or desserts, or reduce or eliminate certain food groups.”
Davis, whose loved one began falling back into habits of restriction and feelings of anxiety over the holidays, feels it’s critical for caregivers to stay extra vigilant at this time of year. “It can often be easy to overlook these emotions because the holidays — although exciting — can be a busy and stressful time for everyone,” she says. “Noticing if your loved one expresses feeling anxious or upset about eating with or around others is something to look out for.”
Why family-based treatment (FBT) may be the right move
While spotting the signs of an emerging or recurring eating disorder can be a difficult task itself, addressing the issue with the right support for your loved one may be even tougher. Thankfully, evidence-based methods like Family Based Treatment(FBT) can help ensure those with eating disorders stand the best possible chance at recovery. FBT, the most effective treatment for children and adolescents, brings the patient’s family directly into the recovery process with a team of experts including a medical doctor, registered dietitian, therapist, family mentor, and peer mentor.
“Eating disorders are often considered to be ‘egosyntonic,’ meaning that eating disorder sufferers often feel that restriction and other eating disorder behaviors align with their beliefs and goals,” Gordon explains. “Therefore, it is often very difficult for people with eating disorders to make changes to their eating behaviors on their own. This is where FBT comes in! When caregivers are able to step in and help their loved one get their nutritional needs met, especially during the holiday season, then the recovery process can begin.”
Davis says that FBT can also offer support to parents/caregivers who may be struggling by allowing them to recover alongside their loved one while also learning skills for themselves that will continue to be helpful in other situations. “FBT gives all caregivers the opportunity to receive the tools and support they need to help their loved ones fully recover,” she says.
Trusting your intuition to help your loved ones
Knowing when or how to intervene or raise the subject of disordered eating symptoms can be uncomfortable, awkward, and even painful. Gordon says that while it can be a thorny subject for caregivers to broach, if something seems off with a loved one’s behavior over the holidays, it’s worth investigating.
“Trust your gut!” she emphasizes. “A lot of people who struggle with eating disorders believe that they are fine and don't want treatment, but if something seems off to you, don't be afraid to seek help from a professional.”
Davis agrees and advises parents and caregivers to be bold and face a loved one’s new or recurring eating disorder symptoms head on. “Don’t be afraid to open a conversation and reach out for help,” she says. “An eating disorder is no one's fault, but it is never too late to help your loved one begin the road to recovery. Opening up this conversation will be difficult and uncomfortable at first and you may even be met with anger and denial. But remind them that your only goal is to help them live a full, happy, and most importantly emotionally and physically healthy life.”
If you are interested in learning more about FBT and eating disorder treatment at Equip, please reach out to our Admissions team at firstname.lastname@example.org or (855) 387-4378.