Let’s Face It, Family Can Be Stressful

Adults holding hands

We are in the middle of the holiday season, which means that you’ve most likely endured some degree of familial stress. From the commotion of cooking large meals for the extended family to body and food-centric dinner table talk, it’s easy to see why the holidays might just be the most stressful time of the year. For those in eating disorder recovery and those who are support people, it’s essential to know what stress is and how it functions. With an understanding of the nature of stress, we can move forward compassionately and mitigate anxiety-inducing moments by utilizing positive communication skills. 

What is stress?

Stress is defined as worry caused by a specific situation. Stress, while uncomfortable, is a common reaction to any change that requires a change in response. Normal stress is often mild and subsides in a short period of time. Typical stress is commonly seen in situations that are temporary—prior to a public speaking engagement, during a busy day, or after a confrontation with a friend.  However, stress may become problematic when a person is confronted with numerous stressors and experiences no relief. This is often called “constant stress.” Constant stress is common in those who are overworked, overscheduled, or experiencing a life-altering event.

Any type of stress has the potential to become harmful. Those suffering from constant stress may develop anxiety, depression, or other negative symptoms such as gastrointestinal upset, headaches, and problems sleeping or staying awake. Stress is also considered harmful when it leads an individual to engage in problematic behaviors to self-soothe, including drug/alcohol use, compulsive spending, and unhealthy food-related behaviors.

Signs and symptoms of stress

  • Negative thought patterns
  • Frustration and irritability
  • Increased tension
  • Headaches
  • Sleep difficulties
  • High heart rate
  • Weight and appetite changes
  • Upset stomach, indigestion, or nausea
  • Exhaustion

Why does stress increase during the holidays?

For those with eating disorders or those who are in eating disorder recovery, holidays are frequently cited as the most challenging time of the year. This stress may be caused by the increased exposure to large amounts of food, extended periods of time with family who are unaware of the individual’s eating disorder or who are unsupportive, and an increase in body-related talk.

For those who are supporting loved ones in recovery, the holidays may be equally as stressful. Support people may be fearful that they won’t “do the holiday right,” thus exacerbating a loved one’s eating disorder. Support people may spend extra time making sure the holiday goes smoothly for their loved one and forget about their needs in the process. Support people may also feel the need to “monitor” the rest of the family to make sure no one is engaging in negative talk that may trigger their loved one. While we are so appreciative of the people that support those in recovery, we also know it can be exhausting and stressful! It’s challenging to watch someone you love struggle and you will want to do everything in your power to make their suffering stop. However, it is nearly impossible to completely eliminate someone else’s suffering and it’s important to prioritize yourself as well. Like flight attendants say, you have to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping someone else.

Ways to alleviate stress during the holidays

For those in recovery, it is possible to reduce the amount of stress felt during the holidays. Some of our favorite tips include:

  • Find support. It’s important that we remember support looks different for everyone. You may reach out to a loved one, schedule additional appointments with your treatment team, text a friend, or write in a journal.
  • Accept the things that you cannot control. Some situations are unavoidable, especially during the holidays. Your family may have food-centric traditions that are triggering to you but your family may not be willing to alter them. If that’s the case, you can’t change the situation but you can prepare yourself. Have a plan for what you can do to distract yourself and make the experience easier for you. Many individuals have found success in texting their support people, using fidgets, or repeating a mantra.
  • Take breaks. It’s okay to exclude yourself from situations if they are putting your recovery at risk. You can politely tell those around you that you are going to take a breather, read a book, or do art. You can even invite others to accompany you if you’d like. Many families enjoy doing crafts or watching a TV show together, and these activities have been found to be anxiety and stress reducing.
  • Stick to your recovery plan. The most important thing you can do during the holidays is to stick to your recovery plan. By maintaining your recovery, you prioritize your health. The better your overall wellbeing is, the less likely you are to be stressed.

For those supporting loved ones during the holidays, we know you are equally as likely to experience some degree of stress. Our favorite advice to support people is:

  • Take care of yourself first. It’s easy to forget about your own wellbeing when you are caring for someone else. However, the most important thing you can do is maintain your own sense of wellbeing so you can be fully present and able to support your loved one.
  • Be present. By being available to your loved one in recovery, you allow them to rely on you as a support person. Make sure they know that you are there if they want to talk or if they need someone to confide in. Let them know that if they are being triggered, it’s okay to tell you and you can help them alleviate the trigger if possible.
  • Have options. One of the easiest ways to support someone in recovery during the holidays is to have options for them. Instead of celebrating with a family dinner and then talking around the table afterward, offer to move the conversation to a different room. You can also have fidgets, games, or crafts to use, too!
  • Be encouraging. We know food-centric holidays are tough for those with eating disorders. So give some extra encouragement to those that you love. If your loved one is really struggling, encourage them to start treatment or to meet with their therapist as soon as possible.

If you are experiencing disordered eating and searching for support, The Emily Program is here for you. You can reach our admissions team at 1-888-364-5977. If you prefer to not use the phone, you can fill out our online contact form here. We can provide you with treatment options and support that fit into your schedule. We also recommend looking into the advice given by The Emily Program community or the tips given by our guest blogger, Blythe Baird, on how to heal from an eating disorder.

Tags: , , ,

The Emily Program Logo