Managing Christmas with an eating disorder.
Even though Christmas is just one day of the year, managing the whole ‘festive season’ can be very difficult. Chocolate advent calendars, candy canes, mince pies, roasted chestnuts, figgy pudding, turkey roast…’tis the season for feasting. But for someone with an eating disorder this can be very daunting. Turn on the television and you’re greeted by an advert for sumptuous Christmas fare; go to the supermarket and you’re bombarded by brightly-packaged goodies; brave a party and you’re confronted by a towering pile of buffet food; go to a family gathering and you’re offered food, food and more food.
Managing expectations of being happy
Christmas can be a very difficult time for many for many different reasons, but one thing that can contribute is the level of expectation that everyone is happy and everyone loves spending time with their family. Sadly, this isn’t true for lots of people and some of the symptoms of an eating disorder may be really difficult to manage over the Christmas period because of this. Despite every effort, just ‘snapping out of it’ for the day is not really an option.
Feelings of nostalgia can be bitter sweet. Being stuck between just ‘wanting to be happy’ and a reminder of previous Christmases where you may have been happy without any eating disorder behaviours.
Anxiety and guilt about the burden of changing other people’s Christmas due to your beh
Being in a different body from last year
Regardless of where you are in your eating disorder recovery, changing body shapes and sizes can be hard. If you are still working through your eating disorder, the desire to lose weight can be difficult to manage. Likewise, if last year you were underweight and have restored your weight this can make you feel guilty or uncomfortable.
Both feelings can be difficult to manage especially if you do not feel comfortable in the clothes that you have at the moment. The ‘dreaded Christmas day outfit’ could involve trying to find something to wear when your clothes are now too tight (a reminder of being underweight) or too baggy.
Dealing with well-meaning relatives
Seeing many relatives, neighbours and family friends is often part of the festive season. However, this may well come with comments about your weight or appearance e.g. ‘you look so much better now’ or ‘you look really well’, etc.
Try to avoid conversations or comments about food, calories or appetite – especially things like ‘we should all go for a long walk to burn off this dinner’, ‘I’ll have to run off all this pudding tomorrow’, ‘I’m stuffed – I couldn’t eat anything more’
Many Christmas days can be packed with things to do and people to see – this means it can be difficult to find time in the day to get a bit of space from it all but it is a good idea to try and build in those few moments. A quick walk outside or a book to lose yourself in.
Eating at different times away from the routine that has got you managing regular eating
Sometimes we adopt different patterns of eating on ‘the big day’ such as having different foods, eating at different times of the day or not having regular meals or snacks ‘to make room for the meal!’. All of these can lead to increased anxiety. Depending on where you are in an eating disorder, you may need support in finding how much of a change to your routine is manageable for you.
Include useful distractions
Opening stockings, Christmas crackers, presents and silly games can all be a welcome distraction from the food especially after meals. Consider not sitting at the dining table for a long time after the meal has finished – you could continue the socialising away from the table.
Plan in advance
Talking about potential difficulties as a family prior to the day can help to set expectations. You may not realise that they are worried about something until it’s discussed. This could be done either as a family or just with one individual and the plan passed on to the rest of the family -whatever feels most manageable.
Try and plan meals as usual in advance, especially if you are staying with family for a few days. This can help to maintain more of your routine outside of the Christmas lunch.
For Christmas lunch itself, see if you can manage the food on the table. Having all the food the local supermarkets could possibly provide all on one table might increase the anxiety around eating and food. Consider keeping some of the food away from the main table if this is an option.
It can be helpful to know what will everyone be doing for the time outside of meals, such as watching a family favourite movie. Reducing last minute changes to plans can help to avoid further anxiety.
Avoid comments based on your body or appearance. e.g. ‘I love your makeup / hair / earrings’ etc… rather than ‘you look amazing in that dress’ or ‘you look so well’. Ask your loved ones to avoid appearance-based compliments if they can.
Know when to take a break
Having some time alone may be appropriate in some settings if this feels safe for you. Plan time in the day when there are less people around so everyone can de-stress. If possible, try to not avoid alone time too soon after a meal if you are still dealing with guilt or other negative thoughts relating to your eating disorder.
Choose a distress signal!
Agree with a trusted loved one to have a signal if things are all getting too much. If you are anticipating difficult conversations or scenarios, this may be really helpful to know that you have extra support.
You can call the BEAT helpine for more support over Christmas, see their opening hours here.