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Key ingredients in the eating disorder mix

Compassion and Eating Disorders this Holiday Season

Tips and advice columns during the holiday season - helpful?

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This blog post goes out to all of those in the thick of suffering with an eating disorder this holiday season.   The Internet is not short on articles for sufferers about how to cope with or help loved ones who have an eating disorder cope with food and relationships during the holiday season.   There is an abundance of helpful and thoughtful information out there and lots of it targets cognition and attitudes i.e. Re-framing negative thinking, acceptance of body and other imperfections, compassion toward self and others and how to change behaviors when triggered. I sometimes imagine what it is like for a person actively engaged in an eating disorder that is reading an ‘advice for the holidays’ article, for the first, second or one-hundredth time.   Do the written words really help when someone is on the verge of stuffing themselves with food with the intended consequence to purge, or is combating the vicious, ruthless or competitive voice in their head that is screaming that they look fat, or are less attractive or less in shape than their relative who came for Christmas dinner?     Does the advice column make sense and can it really help in the moment to curtail or lessen symptoms or painful and negative thinking?   When is it “best” to read the advice?  Days or hours before relatives arrive?  Is trouble shooting even possible for potential hardship at the dinner table?  Will loved ones really be able to follow the advice geared for them when faced with a family member who won’t come out of her room because she feels fat, or who is agitated and hostile because her brain is starving, or because she is envious of a relative’s looks or accomplishments?   Sometimes the power of an eating disorder overtakes everything and anything practical… even the most sophisticated and well-meaning advice cannot deter someone from turning to symptoms.  Yes, a goal of recovery is to gain power over the disorder, but this is not a straight road.  The rational voice has vacated when symptoms are utilized.  Often, feelings, anxiety and/or depression have taken over and the negative voice in the sufferer’s head is inexorable and relentless.  Nothing it seems will take the struggle away, except symptoms.   Recommendations to write down feelings, to distract from triggers by doing other activities, to have a holiday game plan are all well meaning, but are sometimes a lot to ask of the person who is in the thick of a battle.     Although I have never considered eating disorders to be addictions, there are certainly many overlaps between eating disorders and addictions.   One of the most effective tools in addiction recovery is the recognition that addicts cannot recover alone. The sine qua non of addiction recovery is in the acceptance that one is powerless over their addiction and in the power of relationships.    Acknowledging powerlessness implies, therefore, that addicts need help…help from others. From The belief in a higher power, the benefit of 12 step meetings and having a sponsor is the most effective road for most, if not all (dare I say) addicts.   Addicts in recovery accept that they cannot maintain sobriety and live in active recovery without the help and support from others.   Compassion is at the root of all spirituality and humanity.  Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, is a program of love, patience and tolerance – manifestations of the practice of compassion.   Whereas empathy is the ability to understand and connect to what it is like to be in someone’s shoes, compassion is the ability to see the deep relatedness between others and us.   The tips and advice that I find to be noteworthy and perhaps even extraordinarily helpful are the ones that encourage the sufferer to reach out to someone…. letting someone know that you are struggling signifies a willingness to trust in the compassion of others.    When a sufferer reaches out, many positive outcomes can occur regarding symptoms, relationships, cognitive restructuring and psychological growth.    So, here are my tips for why talking to someone when struggling during the holidays, or any time, may be helpful:    1. Sharing makes the struggle real and gets it out of your head2. Sharing allows for trust to emerge3. Sharing combats the internal voice that feels ashamed, needy and foolish4. Sharing helps others to truly understand5. Sharing allows for empathy to emerge6. Sharing demonstrates that people are more reliable than food7. Sharing allows for time to come between the thought to use symptoms and using symptoms – the more time that elapses the better the ability to make a rational and healthier decision Usually, there is nothing that anyone can do to fix the problem in the moment, but a compassionate response will have benefit for the longer recovery road.  Maintaining a compassionate voice is sometimes not an easy one in the throws of the crisis, chaos’s and agitation that surround a person with an eating disorder…. ask any one who loves a person suffering with one at this very moment.   Regards for the new year,Judy Scheel   

Judy Scheel, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., author of When Food Is Family, is the Founder and Executive Director of Cedar Associates Foundation.

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