How the holidays can affect those with eating disorders

YORK, PA. -- This time of year is one that many look forward to; it's a time to reflect, enjoy relationships with loved ones, and eat a lot of food.

As WHNT News 19's sister station FOX43 finds out, that is not necessarily the case for everyone, as the holidays can be a tough time for someone battling an eating disorder.

“Everyone’s going to be focusing on food and that’s something they do already all the time.” Shanley Possemato O’Donnell, MS, LPC, NCC, an outpatient therapist at Wellspan Philhaven said.

Eating during the holidays is something many of us look forward to, but for someone struggling with an eating disorder, it can be a time of year filled with stress and anxiety.

“Is somebody gonna see me eat that? What are they thinking about me eating that? I shouldn’t be eating that… maybe I shouldn’t eat it. It is constantly going on in my head," Sarah said, a member of Overeaters Anonymous said. She asked us not to use her last name.

For years, she suffered through the holidays with an eating disorder. “There were a lot of times I didn’t want to participate… there were a lot of times," Sarah said.

A therapist who treats people with eating disorders says tensions can run high this time of year, as food is the center of the gatherings and family issues are often connected to the disorders.

“They go through the holidays and the anxiety is building up, and once the holidays are over… there’s relief," O’Donnell said.

But just the promise of not seeing another Thanksgiving spread until next year, is not enough to calm the stress for someone trying to overcome their eating disorder.

“It would shut me down, it would black me out… I wouldn’t have to feel," Sarah said.

After years of stressing about the holidays and her disorder, Sarah made a change to help make these gatherings easier. She joined over eaters anonymous.

“I weigh and measure, so there is no question in my head, like did I have enough? It was like white knuckling in the beginning, because you are just trying not to eat it," she said.

O'Donnell says there are ways for guests to take the guess work out of their gathering as well, saying there are some things you should avoid if someone with an eating disorder is at your table.

“Oh my goodness, I ate so much, I feel fat," is not something you want to tell them she says. "The person with an eating disorder—that is their constant thoughts so that kicks up everything for them.”

She says making the get together more about the company and not so much about the food is also helpful, because it isn’t about the food, it is about the relationships and difficulty expressing emotions.

“I don’t eat because I like the taste of food. You think you like the taste of it, but I mean really, I ate frozen things, I ate things from the trash, I ate all kinds of things, so it’s not just the taste, it is like to shut the feelings down," Sarah said.

Sarah said that she has been successful in the Overeaters Anonymous program for 5 years and has lost 110 pounds. She says sharing with group members, and family and friends was a huge part of her progress and creates a safe space for her.

She is finally looking forward to Thanksgiving this year because she says she gets to just spend time with family, and that she doesn’t have to worry about if anyone is judging her.

She did mention that she is still powerless over food, but she’s not hopeless and says there is hope for others too, who may be living life as an overeater. If you aren’t sure if you fall into that category, a good resource is this website.