COPING AT CHRISTMAS WITH AN EATING DISORDER
By Jess Moody / 24 December 2019
TW: Eating disorders
Whenever ‘Christmas’ is mentioned (or any other festive celebrations this season), eating instantly springs to mind.
Festive food and drink infiltrate the supermarket shelves, family fridges and restaurant menus. Food is central to the social calendar, and you are bound to have a mince pie (or three) at family dinners, work parties or social events with friends. Having a healthy relationship with food means you can enjoy the celebrations without many mental or physical repercussions. If this is not the case, the focus on food throughout the whole of the festive period presents itself as a challenge at best to those suffering with or recovering from an eating disorder, and at worst a means of engaging in potentially fatal behaviours.
Eating disorders are extremely complex, manifesting in the mind and eventually the physical body. Although there are various types, they are all, generally, centred on a preoccupation with food which dominates your everyday life. The illness can be characterised as a critical voice in your head, consistently reminding you of what and how much is acceptable or unacceptable to eat. Every action you do is belittled by thoughts such as ‘What have you eaten today?’ or ‘How many calories have you got left to consume?’ Many fear that they will be judged by others for eating, particularly if it is food they consider to be ‘banned’ or ‘bad’; some believe that others view them as ‘too fat’ to be eating or think that they do not ‘deserve’ to eat. To an extent, the eating disorder controls your perception of reality. And, because of this, it convinces you that you are not actually ill. Attempting to recover from something which manipulates you into believing it is not actually there is lengthy and challenging.
Considering the above, it is understandable that food being a central focus of the festive calendar presents Christmas as a potentially triggering period for those suffering with an eating disorder. The pressure to attend parties and family meals disrupts set routines, leading to feelings of helplessness and being out of control. If these feelings occur during the social event, especially when surrounded by numerous people, it is easy to feel resultantly isolated and withdrawn. Simultaneously trying to eat ‘normally’ (in other words, conform to how you feel others expect you to eat in terms of portion size, the food itself, the time at which you eat it and how long it takes) and battle the nagging voice in your head which reprimands you for eating a roast potato is mentally exhausting. Being faced with numerous plates of food, not to mention the possibility of certain family members questioning your eating habits or change in appearance (if the disorder has become visible, or on the other hand if it was visible and you now look healthy) can feel intrusive and increase your sense of anxiety. Feeling that there is nowhere to hide, combined with an overwhelming sense of guilt for enjoying yourself can lead to engaging in unhealthy behaviours, or worse, a relapse.
Having said this, there are measures you can take to reduce feeling overly anxious or isolated. For example, considering in advance the types of food which are going to be available at the event you are attending decreases your chances of feeling overwhelmed or restricted by options when you arrive. If you are going to a restaurant, try looking up the menu online or ringing up in advance. This avoids having to read over menus in front of other people, which can put you under extra pressure if you are indecisive. Moreover, excusing yourself to go to somewhere quiet or on a short walk is useful to clear your head and relax. Take time to breathe, and drink some water or herbal tea. When you have moments to yourself like this, learn to become in touch with your emotions, and establish a connection between your mentality in food-centred situations and how you react physically. Making a physical or mental note of this at least allows you to better understand why you are having an adverse reaction to food in certain scenarios.
Albeit easier said than done, try to remind yourself that one day of eating the ‘wrong’ kinds of foods will not make a difference in the long term.
Quietly observing how people around you are too interested in eating and drinking their food to even notice what or how you are eating can take the pressure off yourself to live up to expectations of eating in a certain way. Informing a close family member or friend in advance of your situation or your concerns gives you the comfort of being able to sit near them or chat if needed. If someone does comment on your appearance or eating habits, it is useful to have a response in the back of your mind. Smiling and replying with, ‘Sometimes I struggle with binging and it doesn’t make me feel too good!’, or even ‘Me and food have a bit of a weird relationship so I need to stay a bit mindful’ is enough said!
Allow yourself some flexibility, but only do what feels comfortable. Everyone is different, meaning some of us are able to eat huge portions of food without feeling guilty and some are not. Completely detracting from your general routine may be triggering, so finding time to do some light exercise or saying no, or yes, to an extra portion of pudding is completely okay! Finding a balance between letting go of expectations and being kind to your mind and body is important. If you find yourself engaging in behaviours which you have tried to repress, or that feelings have worsened over Christmas time, please remember that this is NOT your fault. Trying to distract yourself from thinking about food 24/7 is bound to be difficult during a time when food and eating are some of the main focal points of the season. Even the idea of Christmas can seem like a nightmare for someone with an eating disorder. Validate your feelings and prioritise self-care: you are strong enough to get through this!
For anyone struggling with an eating disorder over the Christmas period, the BEAT helpline services are there to support you. Please see the attached link for useful telephone numbers:
If you aren't struggling yourself, but are worried about a loved one, here are some useful links on how to help:
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