Holiday Stress Complicated by an Eating Disorder?

Helpful Tips for Individuals, Family members, Friends, and Loved-Ones
Daisy Thompson, LMSW, Cedar Springs Austin

For many, the thought of family gatherings, holiday feasts, school plays, and pumpkin-spice lattes, generate feelings of warmth and excitement as the winter holiday season approaches. However, those same images which initially bring sentiments of joy and hope, may give way to a couple of not-so-welcome guests: stress and anxiety. As we plan winter festivities, gift-shop, make travel plans, and brave holiday traffic, we may slowly begin to lose sight of the peace and joy the season promises.

As if the stress of the holidays weren’t enough to challenge our ability to enjoy and celebrate, take a moment and imagine what it might be like for an individual struggling with an eating disorder. From late October through early January, seemingly every festivity involves copious amounts of food; in fact some might say the winter holidays are synonymous with food and eating. So how, with the typical onslaught of holiday stress, does an individual with an eating disorder manage, let alone experience peace and joy during these months? The following are a few adaptive strategies for navigating the holidays for individuals struggling with an eating disorder, as well as some helpful-hints for their family, friends, and loved-ones.

For the Individual: Although it may seem like it now, you are not alone, and one of the most critical steps toward treatment and recovery will be reaching-out to a trusted friend, family member, or professional adept in treating eating disorders. Additionally, it is important to know some of the signs and symptoms of eating disorders. If you or someone you know experiences an intense fear of gaining weight, has lost a substantial amount of weight (self-induced), feels a lack of control over eating, is preoccupied with body image, or exercises excessively, there may be cause for concern. Please refer to the websites at the end of the article for information regarding local and national support for eating disorders.

In keeping with the holiday spirit, the following acronym PEACE may be helpful during the process of acknowledging an eating disorder, or, if you are just experiencing some typical holiday stress and anxiety:

Please reach out: open-up to someone you trust, and seek help.

Engage your senses and become mindfully present. Research indicates that certain mindfulness meditations that utilize one or more of the senses may minimize psychological distress, and increase immune function. Example: Give yourself a two-minute hand-massage. Bring your attention to the smell of the lotion or the sensation of rubbing your palms together. Become aware of the present moment, and observe any physical sensations without judgment. If your mind wanders, gently ease back into the moment, and simply acknowledge the process.

Accept without judgment your flaws, and especially your strengths. Example: Yes, I procrastinate; however I am a really great friend.

Challenge negative thought distortions by finding exceptions. Example: I am imperfect therefore I am unlovable, VS., my parents love me, and therefore I am lovable.

Enjoy life and live whole-heartedly. Bring a focus to the positive events of your day, while decreasing the focus on negative and unhappy experiences.

For Family, Friends, and Loved-Ones, because behaviors are often secretive or carried out in private, one of the greatest challenges may be recognizing an eating disorder. If you notice a friend or a loved-one frequently disappearing after meals, eating significantly less at meals, or rapidly losing weight, there may be cause for concern. If you suspect someone you love and care about to be experiencing an eating disorder, it is important to refrain from shaming or accusatory language. Instead, seek to ask questions such as, “how can I support you?” Encourage open-communication in an unconditional and non-judgmental atmosphere, learn as much as you can about eating disorders, and above all, have patience.

The holiday season may prove particularly challenging for you and your loved-one given the presence of food and the constant expectation to eat. It is important to avoid comments like, “just eat”, or “don’t you understand what you are doing to your body?” Such comments tend to generate fear and frustration, and are unlikely to promote open-communication or help-seeking behaviors. Hear and validate the fears and concerns of your loved-one, as it is often the anticipation of rejection or invalidation that may ultimately increase the desire for isolation or detachment.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit or In addition, please dial 911 for immediate assistance, or the National Eating Disorders Association at (800) 931-2237. Finally, let us all remember that which makes the winter holiday season so precious. Take a deep breath, and become present in your body. Observe and describe your surroundings; hear the sounds, smell the air, and acknowledge and rejoice in the positive events of your life, and remember, Tis the Season to be Merry.

Daisy Thompson is a Licensed Master Social Worker and full-time intake and program therapist at Cedar Springs Austin. Daisy received her BA in psychology and her MSSW from the University of Texas at Austin; graduating both times with honors. Daisy completed her clinical internships at Communities in Schools of Central Austin, and Cedar Springs Austin. Daisy is currently a member of the International Association of Eating Disorders, the National Association of Social Workers, the National Eating Disorder Association, and Austin Eating Disorder Specialists.