Navigating the Holidays: Tips for Those Struggling with ED and their Loved Ones

by Corey Emerick, LPC-MHSP

The holidays can be a joyous time of year, filled with love, warmth, and time spent with loved ones. Unfortunately, for those who are trying to recover from an eating disorder, this is peak season for shame, guilt, fear, and sadness. These emotions tend to exacerbate the need for your loved one to do everything possible to feel loved and accepted, while at the same time being away from their primary emotional support network.

In my experience, most parents, siblings, partners, and friends, love the person seeking recovery, and vice-versa, but gatherings are an easy setting for conversations to take a turn for the worse, potentially wreaking havoc on the holiday experience for all involved. Questions or suggestions by loved ones intending only to be helpful can be easily misinterpreted due to the unspoken emotions and vulnerabilities bubbling under the surface, or because they are delivered in a fragilizing or “tough love” manner.

With this in mind, here are a few holiday tips that may help bring some ease and joy to the season, or at the very least decrease stress:

For everyone:

Recovery from an eating disorder is a long term process that is much more successful when the whole network of loved ones is involved and learning/growing together.

  • It is not a linear or a neat process; not every step back or lapse is a disaster.
  • It is also not a cookie cutter process; no two recovery journeys are exactly alike.
  • Recovery from an eating disorder takes place in the gray—it is an ongoing dance between a desire/urge to engage in an eating disordered behavior and implementing skills to not do so. As well as, a balancing act balance between acceptance of highly uncomfortable feelings while continuously effecting change.
  • It is not unusual to get confused by professional suggestions and approaches, so ask the clinical team lots of questions to help disperse as many assumptions as possible.

For those struggling with an eating disorder or in recovery from one:

  • Even though flexibility is an important skill to learn in your recovery process, planning and structure can be very helpful tools during highly stressful/highly emotional times.
  • If needed, coordinate with your treatment team and loved ones, ahead of time, to plan your meals, seating arrangement, and length of time to spend at each event.
  • Remember flexibility? Well, you can also give yourself permission to be spontaneous and not follow your plans, should that feel like the wisest choice in the moment.
  • Have support friends on speed dial.
  • Take a break when you are stressed out. For example, if you get overwhelmed during a gathering, let your loved ones know you are stepping away for 5-10 minutes to get some fresh air and maybe make that speed dial call… and remember to breathe.

For the loved ones of those struggling with an eating disorder or in recovery from one:

  • It is important to collaborate with your loved one’s therapist (as long as they recommend it and a release is signed), so you can learn what constitutes a red flag for your beloved and how to best support them. Have I mentioned yet that recovery is also a very personalized path (although there are also broad general guidelines)?
  • As much as you can, try to refrain from making comments about anyone’s weight, shape, size, or general appearance (including your own), as well as, diets, the need for anyone to gain or lose weight, or the need for anyone to eat less or eat more.
  • Remember that your loved one’s recovery is a long process, so be graceful with yourself about your own learning curve; lapses are expected for everyone involved… we’re all human after all, right?
  • If this is one of the only times you will see your loved one in person and wish to express concern or get updates, try to plan a time in conjunction with them. Communication is much more effective when the timing is right for all who are sitting down to talk. Also, be mindful of each person’s level of stress when having said conversation. When we are feeling strong emotions we tend to be more reactive; this is not the best time for a productive conversation.

It is my experience that one of our core needs is to love and be loved for who we are, just as we are. Most of our protective mechanisms stem from a belief that we are broken and need to be fixed. What I have found is that we have wounds that need healing and tending. Recovery is a long term process of self-discovery, development of self-love and self-compassion, and cultivation of authentic and safe relationships rooted in mutual respect and trust. This process can bring tremendous joy to all involved if you can weather the stormy days and practice these concepts a little more each day. Wishing each of you a peaceful, nurturing, and joyful holiday season.

Corey Emerick, LPC-MHSP, C-IAYT is the Clinical Director for JourneyPure at Whitestone and the Owner of SantaVie, her private practice. She is a comprehensively trained DBT clinician, a yoga therapist, and a yoga teacher. She has worked with ED and co-occurring disorders for ten years and specializes in integrating skill based teachings with body-centered modalities that are tailored individually to each client’s recovery needs.

(Editing support: Amy Barnes – Psychotherapist/Yoga Instructor and Lara Jackson, LPC-MHSP – Program Director for Whitestone at Journey Pure; Eating Disorder, DBT, and Couples Therapist, as well as Acupuncture Detoxification Specialist – NADA Protocol).

Treatment at JourneyPure At The River

JourneyPure At The River now treats all secondary eating disorders and their co-occurring conditions through JourneyPure at Whitestone in Nashville. We offer medically-assisted detox services, individual and group counseling and experiential therapies. Our friendly and knowledgeable staff is ready for you to get healthy and stay healthy. Call JourneyPure Whitestone today at 1-800-901-4413.