Living with an eating disorder is a horrible ordeal at the best of times. But Christmas – supposedly ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ – can be absolutely awful for ED sufferers. With edibles at every turn and family focus on festive indulgence, food anxieties can hit the roof. If you or a loved one are suffering with eating issues, it’s a good idea to prepare yourself for a time of year which may be triggering and difficult for everyone.
ANXIETY, ANGER, AND CHRISTMAS DINNER
It’s not just the sheer amount of food around at Christmas which can be problematic. It’s also the context in which that food is presented. Many people with eating disorders try to avoid meals with others. This allows them to hide the extent of their issues with food and gives them some control over their diet. However, at Christmas it is often not possible to avoid lavish sit-down meals with the whole family. Far from being a happy time of togetherness, Christmas dinners for those with eating disorders can feel suffocating and cause a lot of anxiety.
Some people with eating disorders find Christmas so difficult that they refuse to participate at all – or will only do so on their terms. It is not uncommon for ED sufferers to isolate themselves at Christmas, or to vanish during mealtimes, or to become anxious and irritable when well-meaning friends and relatives pass around bowls of sweets and treats. This is distressing for everyone involved and can cause damaging rifts within relationships.
Christmas dinner can become a battle ground between people with eating disorders and those who love them. With emotions often already heightened at this time, a wish to honour the rituals and effort which go into a family Christmas and the anxieties caused by an eating disorder can clash.
People with eating disorders may feel a lot of conflicting emotions at this time. They may want to join in with the festivities, but simultaneously wish to isolate themselves due to their eating disorder. They may want their families to try and encourage them to eat in a normal way, while also wanting to control their own food intake.
So, how can you cope with Christmas if you are suffering from an eating disorder? Here are some tips which may help:
• Plan and negotiate in advance. If you know that this time of year is going to be a problem, it helps to be open about it with those you’re going to be spending time with. This gives everyone plenty of time to work out strategies to help you (and themselves!) through Christmas in a healthy manner, without triggering too many anxieties and without putting your health in danger. You may find yourself having to negotiate a bit with your family and friends – but it’s better to do this in a controlled, unpressured manner in the weeks before Christmas than it is to have a big, stressful argument over the turkey.
• Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Recovery from an eating disorder is a slow process. Do try to engage with Christmas meals etc as much as you can – but don’t put undue pressure on yourself to behave in a certain way. Pressurising yourself leads to stress and anxieties, which can cause a mental health relapse.
• Remember that Christmas is about more than just food. Sure, food is a big part of Christmas. But it’s not the be all and end all. If your thoughts are dominated by food and food anxieties, remind yourself that there is a lot more to Christmas than just sweeties and turkey.
• Don’t isolate yourself. The stress of Christmas and the thought of all that communal eating causes many people who have eating disorders to isolate themselves during the festive period. Staying alone lets them continue living by their own rules. However, it can be emotionally challenging to be alone during Christmas, especially if you are used to big, family Christmases. Do not let your illness prevent you from experiencing warm and loving family festivities.
• Do not let the thought of Christmas control your behaviour. Don’t try to modify or adjust your diet or routine in order to ‘make up for’ Christmas indulgences. Christmas is just one day, and it will pass. Do not let it ruin your month.
• Seek help. If you are not already doing so, it is a really good idea to seek psychological help before Christmas. A good, accredited counsellor will be able to help you work through your issues, and can teach you good strategies to help you through the festive season.
HOW CAN COUNSELLING HELP WITH EATING DISORDERS AT CHRISTMAS?
We’ve spoken above about the importance of preparing in advance for Christmas if you have an eating disorder. This preparation can involve practical negotiations with friends and family about how you’re going to handle issues around the Christmas dinner and things like that.
However, it’s also important to be psychologically and emotionally prepared for the anxieties which may arise at this time.
An accredited counsellor can help with this emotional preparation. If you are not already seeing a counsellor, Christmas and New Year are excellent times to sign up for counselling, particularly if you are suffering from an eating disorder. A counsellor will give you space and time to talk through and process your issues – space and time which is often in very short supply during December. They can also help you with tactics and strategies to help you combat anxieties and negotiate relationships with family and friends during this time.
We wish you all the best for Christmas, and hope that you have a happy and healthy New Year.