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Protecting Eating Disorders Recovery During the Holiday Season, Part 2: Advice for Friends and Family

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In my last post, I outlined several strategies that those in recovery from an eating disorder can draw on during the holiday season to protect their ongoing recovery. Family and friends can be additional champions to support a behavior-free holiday season, and a supportive network is essential to navigating this often hectic time of year. However, despite the best of intentions, loved ones can sometimes inadvertently cause stress and anxiety in their efforts to spend quality time together and carry on their long-standing traditions.

The advice below seeks to help friends and family understand the unique needs of someone recovering from an eating disorder and be a champion for sustainable recovery during the holiday season.

1. Take it easy. As much as you want to re-engage your loved one into all of your holiday traditions, ease into the holiday season by focusing on activities that don't involve food, such as putting up decorations or sending cards.

2. Be mindful of the needs of your loved one during holiday gatherings. Eating-disordered patients and individuals in recovery are often "people-pleasers," and will hide their anxiety in an effort to meet the emotional needs of friends and family. If your friend or family member doesn't feel as though they can attend an event, support them in this decision even if you feel disappointed. If your loved one is willing and able to attend a holiday gathering, support them if they need to "escape" for some fresh air to keep their emotions in check, and be willing to leave early if the festivities begin to feel overwhelming. It may be helpful to agree on a signal or sign that your loved one can use when he or she needs your help to change the subject during a conversation with a nosy neighbor or a tipsy relative, or when he or she needs to take a moment away to regroup.

3. Plan ahead. Provide as much information as possible to your friend or loved one regarding holiday activities -- where, when, what types of food will be available and whether alcohol will be served. Information and preparation can help patients in recovery plan ahead, practice flexibility and avoid situations that might trigger an eating disorders relapse.

4. Consider scheduling family therapy sessions when family members are together. Family relationships can play an important role in eating disorders recovery. Ask your loved one if it would be appropriate to invite relevant family members to participate in therapy sessions when they're in town for the holidays. Families with members scattered across the country can make use of holiday vacations spent together to address important issues, or use therapy sessions to learn how to help the entire family navigate the holidays while supporting your loved one's recovery.

5. Make your loved one's eating disorders recovery a priority. Altering holiday traditions in the short term can significantly impact your family member or friend's wellbeing in the long term. Changing traditions or creating new traditions to meet the needs of your loved one in recovery can feel disappointing and scary, but remind yourself that eating disorders recovery is fragile and that you have the power to help protect it.

Eating disorders are complex illnesses, and in spite of abundant love, support and understanding from friends, families and colleagues, relapse can happen. In many cases, outpatient care -- appointments with a therapist, psychiatrist or dietitian or participation in an intensive outpatient program (IOP) a few days each week -- can address the recurring thoughts or behaviors. In some cases, however, a higher level of care may be the recommendation of an eating disorders professional to restore medical, psychological and sociocultural health.

To learn more about eating disorders treatment and addressing escalating eating disordered thoughts and behaviors this holiday season, chat live with a master's-level therapist at www.EatingRecoveryCenter.com.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

For more by Kenneth L. Weiner, M.D., FAED, CEDS, click here.

For more on eating disorders, click here.

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