The holiday season is usually associated with unrestrained indulgence—eat, drink, be merry, repeat. But for those suffering from an eating disorder it can represent a terrifying minefield of triggers capable of sparking a dangerous downward spiral.
That is the warning from Anita Simon, co-founder of the Silver Linings Foundation, a Calgary non-profit that aims to advance awareness of and treatment for eating disorders in Canada. She also has personal experience with the illness.
Simon’s daughter suffered from an eating disorder for years—which almost took her life at age 11—before she found effective treatment and eventually recovered. It was especially difficult to manage the disorder during the holiday season, remembers Simon.
“Christmas, family holidays, travelling, all those things presented extreme challenges to her,” she says. “They really do exacerbate [the illness] just because they provide extra stress and anxiety. Situations where they are not able to control their environment as much tend to worsen the eating disorder significantly.”
It is difficult to pinpoint the number of people who suffer from eating disorders in Canada, as many do not seek treatment. But the Canadian Mental Health Association estimates between 0.5 and 4 percent of Canadians, mostly women, are diagnosed with the condition. And according to many physicians and advocacy groups, those numbers are on the rise.
During the holidays, triggers for those with eating disorders are seemingly everywhere: copious amounts of tempting food constantly on hand, little control over how meals are prepared, and constant social pressure to indulge. Meanwhile, a plethora of holiday food ads in the media compete with weight-loss promotions to meet the ever-popular New Year’s resolution to be thin.
Social gatherings put further pressure on sufferers, says Simon, because comments on appearance are common at such times. If family members are aware of the disorder, sufferers may feel monitored or scrutinized by them. If families don’t know about the disorder, they may unintentionally make insensitive comments about appetite, eating habits, or pile on the pressure to eat more.
These well-intentioned comments are especially dangerous because of the fragile psyche of people with eating disorders, who often suffer from significant self-esteem and body image issues, says psychologist Adele Fox, who specializes in counselling those who suffer from the condition.
“They often go into feelings of shame and worthlessness and guilt—many negative thought patterns start to get churned up,” says Fox, adding that the initial triggers for eating disorders are different for each individual.
There are, however, many things families can do to help their loved ones better cope with the disorder over the holidays, says Simon.
Avoiding appearance-related comments and instead complimenting personality traits, serving meals at set times and then taking the food out of view, creating meal plans together, planning fun activities unrelated to food, and seeking the advice of professionals all help create an atmosphere of support and mitigate anxiety, she says.
Canada also has much work to do in providing effective support services, adds Simon, because huge waiting lists and expensive treatments are a major obstacle to recovery.
Due to the stigma of having an eating disorder, many are also afraid to seek help, says Fox.
“The shame keeps people in the shadows, and because they’re in the shadows it’s not an issue that is properly represented by the population,” she says.
“We need more people that are willing to speak up, or speak up for loved ones, and gather a larger voice that says this is a really major issue in Canada, and one that we don’t talk about in a productive way.”
According to the National Initiative for Eating Disorders, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder.