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Eating disorders have become increasingly common among US teens, especially girls. Understanding how and why eating disorders develop can help teens, parents, and friends alike better gauge how to prevent relapses and flare-ups in symptoms and address some of the root stressors behind increasingly disordered behavior – especially as the holiday season draws closer. To help avoid any setbacks, here are some ways you can navigate the holidays with an eating disorder.

How the Holidays Can Affect Disordered Eating

Perhaps the biggest misconception among adults and teens alike is that an eating disorder is largely external – that things like unrealistic Instagram models and Hollywood superhero bodies heavily contribute to the development of disordered eating habits.

There is an element of influence, yes; the modern beauty standard, even as it evolves and continues to change, can certainly affect and exacerbate some of the anxieties that teens with eating disorders share. But at their root, eating disorders are severe anxiety disorders – often tied to genetic factors, trauma, and a host of environmental causes.

Some people are intrinsically more likely to struggle with body image issues and are more susceptible to disordered eating as a behavioral coping mechanism. The overabundance of sanitized and edited images in our day-to-day – whether on the silver screen or on the smartphone – is making things worse. But eating disorders are too complicated to blame on a single factor.

Stressors play another important role in the severity of an eating disorder and the shape it takes. The more pressure a person is under, the more likely they are to struggle with the compulsions that fuel their eating disorder, such as food binges, purging behavior, overexercising, diuretic abuse, and other forms of unsupervised drug use.

Ironically, the holidays are some of the most stressful days in the year and a source of stress for many people who specifically struggle with food and disordered eating. In most households, the holidays mean joy and cheer and plenty of food. But it takes a lot of preparation and is hectic to get things ready for the celebration, and excessive food can trigger binge eating behavior.

Ways to Handle the Holidays with an Eating Disorder

Whether it’s Thanksgiving or an end-of-the-year celebration, holidays might be some of the toughest times for someone struggling with an eating disorder. But thankfully, there are measures you – and your loved ones – can take to make the best of the situation during the holidays with an eating disorder:

1. Minimizing Incoming Stressors

Like other anxiety disorders, the symptoms of an eating disorder can get a lot worse the more pressure you’re under.

Try to minimize that pressure – if you’re helping your family out over the holidays, see if you can limit your responsibilities and instead devote more time to therapy.

Work with your therapist to identify helpful stress management techniques over the holiday break. Work on relaxation techniques to refocus your attention on the break ahead rather than all the work you’ve yet to finish or the schoolwork you have ahead of you on the first Monday back in school.

Struggling with anxiety isn’t an excuse to get out of running errands or helping around the house. But don’t overdo it out of a sense of guilt or self-deprecation, either.

2. Utilizing Healthier Coping Skills

We can’t lead stress-free lives. We each have our fair share of responsibilities, some of which are unavoidable even in times of “rest.” It’s good to feel important and to serve a function, whether it’s at work, at school, or at home – but we each need our own way of dealing with the mental fatigue and stress that accumulates over time or suffer the consequences.

For teens with anxiety disorders or eating disorders, too much pressure can exacerbate symptoms or, after treatment, lead to an unwanted relapse (such as a food binge). It’s important to develop healthier coping skills, especially as a teen.

These might include taking a long walk through a refreshing park or through nature, reading a nice book, using essential oils in your room, or listening to your relaxation playlist to calm you down.

3. Don’t Make Too Big a Deal Out of the Meal

A lot of holidays ultimately revolve around the big meal – like the Thanksgiving dinner. But if a person in your household struggles with eating disorders and is still in treatment, consider talking your dinner plans over with their therapist.

A big meal can bring the family together, from the arduous prep time to the extensive post-meal cleanup duties. But it’s also putting the focus on something a person with an eating disorder might not be comfortable fixating on, especially for hours on hours on end.

4. Don’t Dwell on the Dishes

Another important tip is to consider moving on from the dinner table as soon as everyone’s done with their meals – or, as an alternative, cleaning up right after eating so dinnertime conversations can continue with some fresh mint tea or a pot of coffee.

One more tip for minimizing some of the stress and anxiety around Thanksgiving meals and other holiday meals is to prepare portioned plates rather than giving everyone a plate and access to a myriad of dishes.

While it isn’t very traditional, taking care of portioning in the kitchen and bringing everyone their meal at the dinner table can help eliminate the urge to go and clean off the rest of the meal – or eat anything barely at all and just pick at the beans for a bit. The structure of consistent portion size – in and outside of the holidays with an eating disorder – can also help with disordered eating.

How A Lack of Structure Challenges Treatment

Both in the context of food and living, structure is important for teens with eating disorders and other anxiety problems. Additional structure can take some of the uncertainty out of day-to-day planning, but it also helps combat rumination and intrusive thinking.

Having a consistent structure for key things – like sleeping, eating, and exercise – also keeps both the mind and body happy, as our own internal clocks are set based on when and how we rest and feed.

Be Patient and Prepared

It can take years for someone with an eating disorder to develop a healthier relationship with their body and food. Consistency is important, but it’s normal to hit speedbumps from time to time.

The holidays are a frequent trigger, and while you can do everything in your power to minimize that risk, it’s also important to accept things when they go wrong. Don’t let that discourage you from your journey in recovery.

For more information on treatment for teen eating disorders, visit Visions Treatment Centers.

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