It’s the most wonderful time of the year… or is it? For some, the holiday season represents one of the most joyful times of the year. Others look upon the season with anxiety or even dread. Undoubtedly, sentiments surrounding the December holidays range anywhere from merry to morose. But for those struggling with an eating disorder, the holidays can conjure particularly complicated emotions and significant challenges. Extended periods with family and friends, time away from one’s routines, and celebrations centering around food and meals present unique challenges to those working toward recovery. For those with undiagnosed or untreated eating disorders these factors can be especially overwhelming in the absence of recovery-based skills.

The hubbub of the holiday season can obscure our ability to see our loved one’s clearly. If you’re hosting family or friends, even in a limited capacity, you may find yourself quite busy with preparations and plans. Even in this holiday season, a season perhaps unlike any other, and even when our plans might be drastically scaled down, it’s all too easy to get lost in the season’s “to-dos.”

No matter what the trappings of your holiday season entail, the most important item on this year’s to-do list is to connect and nurture those you love. Especially this year, if your plans center more closely around immediate family, consider this a unique opportunity to truly see your loved ones.

If you’re welcoming someone home this holiday season who is recovering from an eating disorder, you can play a significant support role during this challenging time. Consider checking in with your loved one prior to their arrival and asking questions about how you can best support their recovery journey. Unsure how to start the conversation? Simple questions like, “How can I support you while you’re here?” or “What can I do to help?” are great places to start. It may feel intimidating to open this conversation with your loved one. Keep in mind that, so long as you approach the conversation with loving intentions and thoughtful words, your efforts do more good than harm.

If you suspect your loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, but you aren’t sure, time together during the holidays might help you validate or disprove your concerns. Many families have been separated from one another for long periods of time this year. During the time apart, many of us have changed. The stress of the pandemic has taken a different toll on each of us. For some, the pandemic and the isolation that accompanies it have amplified eating disorder behaviors and symptoms.

Not sure what types of signs and symptoms to look for? If your loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, you might notice any of the following:

  • Significant weight loss or weight gain. Eating disorders are not always visible. Weight loss or weight gain alone do not indicate an eating disorder. However, significant weight fluctuations can be a signal that something has changed with your loved one. Don’t jump to conclusions based off of weight gain or weight loss; but do consider keeping an eye out for other signs.
  • Changed behaviors and emotions around food. If you notice that your loved one is avoiding meals, avoiding certain foods, or has adopted a strict diet regimen, you may be witnessing signs of a restrictive eating disorder. Overeating or eating small amounts of food are equally concerning signs, too. Remember that eating disorders aren’t only about restrictive eating habits. Take note if your loved one’s behaviors around food have changed. From an emotional perspective, take note if your loved one seems anxious, fearful or stressed during meals. These cues may be a sign of something deeper.
  • Body talk. Unfortunately, many people normalize negative body talk. Negative body talk is not only destructive; it can also be a sign of an eating disorder. If you notice your loved one spending significant time talking about size, weight, shape, body parts and body goals, or complaining about their body, consider if you’re noticing other eating disorder signs and symptoms. Also, for the sake of your loved one, yourself and others, try shifting the conversation toward a more empowering perspective on the body.
  • Excessive exercise. Regular exercise can be a wonderful way of reducing stress during the holiday season and beyond. But, if you notice that your loved one is spending an inordinate amount of time exercising, this may be a sign of a problem.
  • If you notice that your loved one seems withdrawn, or is avoiding spending time with family and friends, this may be a sign of deeper issues. Consider whether your loved one’s efforts to isolate are in keeping with their personal health and safety wishes related to COVID, or if they may be isolating for other reasons.

Eating disorders present in very different ways for different people. These are just a few of many signs and symptoms that can indicate the need for eating disorder treatment. Learn more about the unique signs and symptoms of various eating disorders. If you suspect your loved one is struggling, err on the side of caution. Reach out to a professional to learn more and to identify the best next steps.

This holiday season, more than ever, let’s focus on taking care of each other. Despite the hustle and bustle, despite the canceled, modified or continued plans, and despite the season’s distractions, remain present to those you love. Take time to look upon them with fresh eyes, and to seek out ways to be supportive. Especially to those working toward recovery, your presence, your love and your compassion are the greatest gifts you can give.