The TV, radio, and social media are all talking about the anticipation in the air. The holiday season is here. For many of us, what is in the air feels more like anxiety and panic. The anticipation isn’t always something we welcome. Do you ever feel like the holiday season and dealing with your child who is suffering with an eating disorder is just too much? Juggling shopping, parties, work schedules, decorating, cookie baking, visiting relatives, travelling, etc. can be exhausting under the best and happiest of circumstances. When you have a child or loved one with an eating disorder, whether in recovery or still struggling to get there, it can feel like it is just too much.
As moms the lion’s share of the above mentioned activities often falls on us. When our child has an eating disorder and is stressed and worried during the holiday season or perhaps triggered by all of the food, disruptions in routine, and the expectation of being happy, we are too. We feel our children’s pain. We fret and worry right along with them. We notice every little thing and want to fix anything that is broken, but we can’t fix everything. We also worry whether this stress and anxiety will be felt by brothers and sisters who do not have an eating disorder. It is an impossible balancing act of trying to make sure everyone is happy. Mom’s stress level, and any caregiver’s, can go off the charts at this time of the year and I am sure that anyone struggling to help a loved one with an eating disorder can relate.
The truth is that there are a thousand triggers for someone suffering with an eating disorder at this time of year. There are also a thousand triggers for moms and dads and other close family members too. Memories of holidays before the eating disorder can be painful. The relapse into some previous eating disorder behaviors can trigger that “knot in the stomach” you had when those behaviors were very prominent or appeared for the first time. The perseverating over whether to participate in food related activities such as cookie baking can be exhausting. Extra exercising could always set me back right to the beginning and was like a flashback for me. It would almost paralyze me with fear. Trying to make everyone happy and feeling the need to have eyes in the back of my head to watch out for signs of relapse was completely depleting. The interruption in the normal routine can be very difficult and is often very triggering to those with an OCD component to their eating disorder. This can also be very difficult for family members as well. The disruption of regular routines, especially if this triggers an increase in eating disorder symptoms, can have a domino effect. Family members that normally respond well to changes might feel the increased anxiety. I am sure so many of you can relate.
It is important to remember that unless you manage your own stress, you cannot help anyone else. By that I do not mean that you won’t feel stress. Of course you will. It is important to remember that you need relief from that stress and caring for yourself isn’t selfish, it really is selfless. Unless you care for yourself, there is no way that you can effectively care for anyone else. All of our fears, anxiety, and depression are heightened when we are exhausted and stressed. No one can think as clearly or be patient under those circumstances. Moms, dads, spouses, and other close relatives need to measure and manage their own stress levels without feeling guilty. It is so easy to feel guilty and selfish for taking some time to manage your own stress. Guilt is a distraction. It places blame where there really isn’t any. Taking time to manage your own stress doesn’t change the love you have for your child and it doesn’t put your needs ahead of theirs. Managing your own stress makes you more available and accessible to your child and much more equipped to help them manage theirs. Below are some suggestions to help make holiday stress more bearable. I hope some of them might be helpful to you.
Family Meeting: I always recommend beginning with a family meeting. Everyone gets an opportunity to have input into this year’s plans. A reasonable plan can be put into place to address the needs of your family this particular year. A family meeting allows everyone to be on the same page and execute the same plan. Having this family meeting with your treatment team might be helpful as well.
Shopping: Split your shopping list with your husband. Allow him to help you. Consider paying a small fee to a trusted college student or high school student to help you do your shopping. High School and college kids need money and usually love to shop. Allow them to help you complete your list. Consider shopping with a friend and making a fun day/night out of it. This might help motivate you and give a light-hearted break to your day. Shop online. This might be less tiring and be able to be completed faster than going to the mall.
Decorating: Consider paying someone to put up those lights this year. Invite a good friend over to help you decorate. This might motivate you and provide some laughter and fun as well as a helping hand. Consider scaling back the decorations a bit this year. Have a family party and give everyone a decorating task.
Parties: If the parties are a trigger for any of you, consider cutting back. Have a family meeting to decide which ones to attend and which ones are better avoided. It’s OK to politely decline some of the party offers.
Traveling: The stress of traveling might be too much. Perhaps having out of town relatives come to you would be more relaxing. Consider not traveling at all if it is too stressful. Perhaps cutting back the number of days that you will be traveling is a compromise. If you do travel, have a family meeting to discuss how a routine and structure can be built into your day.
Baking: This is a tough one because the extra food, especially desserts, can be very triggering. This is also a change from last year’s post. Other children in the home may not want to be deprived of this holiday tradition though. Cookies and sweets are food. They are often served for dessert with your child or loved one’s meal. If your tradition is to bake cookies, then I would continue to bake them. Let your child know when you intend to bake them and they can choose to participate or not participate. Be supportive either way.
As always, I recommend keeping in frequent contact with your treatment team, your personal therapist if you have one, support groups, trusted friends, etc. Any and all support that you can give yourself during this time will benefit everyone in your family.