The build up to Christmas can be overwhelming for eating disorder survivors.
The event often revolves entirely around eating and includes relentless talk of diets and shedding Christmas weight.
Maintaining recovery in times of stress isn’t easy, but the festive period in particular can bring about anxiety, as most of us eat differently, sometimes we eat more, move about less and feel pressure to socialise.
The pandemic of 2020 has already placed obstacles in the paths of many people recovering from eating disorders, so it’s understandable if you’re feeling scared approaching Christmas.
Here are some tips that can help make Christmas a little less stressful.
Keep communications open
Asking for help when eating disorder urges get loud often isn’t easy, and this can become increasingly difficult at Christmas as we spend time around relatives in situations where food is the main focus.
It’s understandable why extra pressure to eat can create fear of bingeing, and how eating around others can make you feel scrutinised.
But things don’t have to escalate. As soon as you feel that little niggle from your eating disorder, or the panic bubbling in your stomach, tell someone. It might be an idea to create a signal with a friend or relative that signifies when you’re feeling uncomfortable or need to be excused, which could be texting them a simple emoji, making a gesture or using a certain phrase.
Sit next to someone who puts you at ease at the dinner table and never feel guilty about needing a breather or for someone to spend a moment with you whilst you vent about your anxieties. You aren’t taking away from their Christmas experience, they will want to make things as smooth as possible for you.
Plan activities that don’t revolve around food
The festive season is incredibly food orientated, which can be frightening if your relationship with food is strained.
While what we eat can create magical memories for us on Christmas, there’s so much more to the day. Movies, games, decorations, gifts, music and gossiping with people you haven’t seen much shape Christmas just as much as the roast dinner or the Quality Street in the evening.
Plan activities that act as an escape from the overwhelming focus on food, whether that’s playing with a younger sibling’s new toys while the turkey is in the oven, or washing the dishes afterwards to take your mind off impending food guilt.
Thoughts about food don’t have to totally consume your Christmas and utilising distractions can help you feel less suffocated.
Create boundaries and don’t be afraid to implement them
We’ve all been there, sitting around the living room with aunties and grandmas already planning their New Year diets, while everyone compliments people on how slim they’ve become and makes jokes about needing to ‘burn off’ the calories in their Christmas pudding.
But you don’t need to remain in those situations. When diet culture creeps into conversation, you are allowed to remove yourself from that space or, if you feel brave enough, suggest changing the subject or ask a loved one to speak up if you feel too vulnerable.
Additionally, relatives who don’t understand eating disorders may comment on what you eat at Christmas, so feel free to challenge them by reminding them what you are eating is right for you. Protecting yourself and shutting down triggers is an important part of recovery.
Establish a routine and create meal plans
Routine tends to go out of the window over Christmas if we have time off from the hustle of everyday life. While this can be relaxing, it may send your recovery up in the air.
Try to keep a structure with meals – it’s just as important to nourish your body over Christmas as any other time.
Don’t be hard on yourself if your days don’t go as planned, but having a structure can help keep you grounded and planning what you eat in advance can alleviate anxiety and create opportunities to communicate with loved ones about your worries. You might have to rearrange meal times around social interactions and other plans, so think ahead about what you’ll need to manage those situations.
…But remove the pressure to eat ‘perfectly’
There’s never such a thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, but Christmas especially is a time to appreciate that food exists for enjoyment just as much as necessity.
The purpose of food isn’t just nutrition and survival, and you are allowed to eat beyond your body’s needs. Food connects us, it’s a thing to celebrate, crave, enjoy and experiment with.
Take your foot off the pedal and allow yourself to eat what you want. If other people can tuck into mince pies and roast potatoes, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do the same. Your eating disorder does not make you an exception, and it doesn’t decide what occasions you can enjoy.
There are no prerequisites for you to be worthy of eating over Christmas, you don’t have to fast or skip meals to ‘earn’ what you eat. It’s ok if you eat more, and it’s important to listen to your body when it sends you those hunger cues.
Removing the pressure to eat “perfectly” over the festive season can reduce the likelihood of falling into a cycle of restriction and bingeing. Honour your body and the signals it sends.
Be kind to yourself and trust your body
2020 has been hard enough, so be extra kind to yourself as this year comes to a close.
You deserve to have a good Christmas, regardless of what you eat, and you should trust that your body will carry you through as it always has done. Nothing you eat on Christmas day is going to have drastic health consequences the morning after, nor will it change anything about how people view you.
Likewise, nothing bad is going to happen if you don’t work out after your meal or you rest for a few days. You are already trying so hard by facing Christmas despite your eating disorder wanting to ruin it for you, so don’t take it out on yourself if plans change or you find yourself feeling full or satisfied after eating.
Keep yourself warm with a blanket of self-care and compassion this Christmas and remind yourself that everything is as it should be. You are allowed to be present and just be.
Remember, Christmas is a short period of time
If you don’t have fun this Christmas, that’s valid too. Eating disorder or not, not everyone enjoys Christmas, and you might feel coerced into engaging in the festivities when all you want is for the day to pass.
If things don’t go well, or the day arrives and you feel too panicked to fully enjoy yourself, it’s fine if all you do is make it through. Don’t pressure yourself into being on top form, and absolutely do not take it out on your body if problems arise.
Abusing your body with things like restriction or purging will not solve anything, and it’ll likely only make you feel worse in the long run.
Whatever your Christmas looks like, remember two weeks over Christmas only accounts for 4% of the year. It isn’t everything. And you will survive it.
If you need support this Christmas, reach out to Beat on 0808 801 0677. Their helplines will be open every day over Christmas from 4pm-8pm.
To talk about mental health in an open, judgement-free space, join our Facebook group, Mentally Yours.
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