Disclaimer: this post discussed eating disorders.
As those with eating disorders approach Christmas, there will be a long list of anxieties running through their minds, with most of them surrounding the abundance of different foods, and unwillingly relinquishing control around it. And, in the run up, many are looking for ways to cope. Looking back, with the perspective of being now in a state of recovery, there are several things I wish had been adopted into Christmas Day and the days that follow up to Hogmanay (or New Year’s Eve for the non-Scottish ones). These are, in fact, things I have incorporated into my current environment.
I have recently been involved in a Coping at Christmas workshop for Beat, wherein I assisted occupational health therapist, Faith Chapman, in providing advice and support to carers of an individual with an eating disorder so they can support themselves and their loved ones during Christmas. And, I learned a lot about what people worry about. So, alongside advice provided by Beat, which I will link at the end of this post, I hope some of these help.
Keeping to Routine.
Everything is at Christmas has a tinge, or, more like a flood, of go, go, go. It can feel like a whirlwind of a day, and, as though it has ended as quickly as it has started. Because of this, there can feel there is little room for routine, and for someone going through recovery, this can be a particularly challenging feat. Routine can be paramount to maintaining a state of positive wellbeing and recovery. This is especially true if the person is in treatment, and sticking to such routines like meal plans/times. And, even when you are presently gripped by the eating disorder, before you’ve approached recovery, there can be stringent scheduling in when you eat, what your day is going to look like etc., Knowing, you’re approaching a potentially very chaotic day, with potentially an abundance of spontaneity, can be so incredibly overwhelming and distressing. This is only heightened if you’re someone who is not dealing with the meals that day, or you are visiting family for Christmas if you live elsewhere, as you may feel you are out of the loop of the events of the day.
So, during Christmas, it is a worthwhile idea to get a routine established, or at least a general idea of when meals would be, so the worry of the time of the meal becomes a focal point of the day for the family and for the person. It is an idea to speak with your family so you can understand when people will be arriving, should there be mixing of households as presents are exchanged, when are the meals, when will food preparation begin etc., Therefore, this will allow you to feel a level of positive control as you have the security in knowing what is going on, and you are able to notice when you will likely experience negative, impactful emotions that may require an adaptive coping strategy. It also allows you to stick to your recovery plan as best as possible, and be able to treat the day as normally as possible, not causing any real upset or disturbance to the process of externalising and recovering from the eating disorder. So, you’ll be able to eat as regularly as you can, and not disrupt any positive habits you are working to develop more fully.
However, it is so important to remember that it is Christmas, and, as I mentioned, it is a day of the year that is quick, busy, ever-changing, and hectic. While you will have a plan and a routine, particularly with many of us abiding to the COVID-19 rules placed within our respective national governments, you may find that the routine you hoped to keep to goes completely out the window, or at least, partially. And, as I write this, the rules have already changed again, so the routine you worked hard to put together may already be out the window, before you even got the chance to get started. So, a plan and a routine, even a draft of one, should be there, but there should be forgiveness if the routine is not carried out to a tee. There should be an understanding that things won’t be plain sailing on a day like Christmas. And, this is okay. Your Christmas will have ups and down, and won’t be the Christmas you hoped for, especially with the sudden rule changes in the UK, travel bans from several EU countries, the lockdowns announced in countries like Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Austria. And, I say again, this is okay. You are not to feel punished for a virus, and you should allow forgiveness for yourself if your eating disorder attempts to best you. It wants you to feel bad, and to run to it to seek its forgiveness, but the only person in that moment you should forgive is yourself.
And, when that routine you put in place goes belly up, communication is the key. If you are affected by these rule changes, no matter your government and country, and you feel confused and lost, speak with the people you were hoping to spend Christmas with.
From this point on, I will refer to these people as your support system, regardless if they are your parents, your siblings, your other relations, or your peers.
If you want to know what is going on, rule changes or not, contact your support system and work through the logistics with them. This is a sensitive and fragile time for many people, particularly those with eating disorders, so, with all the uncertainty, it can be incredibly distressing, and it can be preferable to have an idea of what is going on. Your support system may not have all answers, but they may provide some information, or, better yet, they can help you to look up the relevant information. The information you need may be small or it may be big, but it is important to remember that it is sometimes necessary and can be the difference between feeling settled and supported, and feeling lost. Sometimes you might not get the answer, and your support system should be honest in letting you know that they don’t have the answer. This may be a good time to work together to find the answer. And, it may end up being a strategy to cope with the lack of solid information.
Your communication with your support system can also be vital in deciding your comfort levels, and knowing when to step out of them. Christmas is a scary time for eating disorders, but it is also a wonderful time to push the boat out the dock a little. You’re exposed to new food, maybe food you have avoided, so this may a time to try different foods or eat a more balanced meal irrespective of your eating disorder. So, by communicating with your support system, you are able to create agreements and an appropriate level of negotiation in what you eat during Christmas meals. Consequently, you may have agreements like: if you ate two slices of turkey and stuffing; it would be good if you ate three roast potatoes… There may also be communication involving the food inside the house that may be a risk for binging, so you may speak to your support system about your worry surrounding this food and what could be done to resolve it e.g. a hiding spot unknown to you, or a discussion around the food being there for everyone in the family.
However, remember that if an agreement is made, then it should be honoured (to a degree). Your eating disorder will try to get you to barter in any way it can, and it can be overwhelming for both you and the support system so negotiations may be accepted to decrease distress. But, try to push through. That being said, you shouldn’t be punished out of the support system’s frustration i.e. being made to sit at the table until you finish. Adding to this, your support system shouldn’t throw impromptu rules like well, you ate that turkey so here’s some more. You made an agreement, and your support system should honour it as much as you should.
COMMUNICATION: Part Two – Your Limits
There may be a point within the day that you feel overwhelmed to a point you cannot block it out any longer. Sometimes, in those moments, you feel you need to grin and bear it, despite the upset and the distress bearing down further. In doing so, you can’t, and don’t, address the negative, impactful emotions, and they are not processed properly and may worsen. A positive and adaptive way of dealing with this is to speak prior to your support system about establishing signals or codewords to notify them of moments of distress and general negative emotions. Additionally, it can be a good idea to think about some coping strategies you, and/or your support system, can employ to ground you and alleviate concerns to provide some solace and security. If you are able to let your support system know when you’re feeling low, or anxious, or not entirely with the mood of the room, then it can allow you to regulate in a way best for you. I’ve noticed that a way in which I regulate is to excuse myself, and work through the physical reaction of my negative emotions i.e. I cry or I have a panic attack, so to calm down. Then, I am able to speak about how I felt and what was overwhelming me. Because, over the years I have come to understand the emotional and physical signs of my anxiety attack, and, in the moment of one, I am usually highly irritable to the point of angry, crying, and trying to rush out every thought in my head.
The same goes for the moments I feel low. If you feel like you are dipping in your mood, having body dysmorphia, or eating disorder guilt/shame, then communicate this to your support system, and if you are comfortable, ask to speak about it with them in a quieter part of the house, or set aside time to talk about it. This is when you can employ those coping strategies, and quiet your mind with a distraction technique.
Additionally, if you feel comfortable in doing so, it may be worthwhile to open this discussion to your extended support system should they be joining you for Christmas Day. Since the Christmas festivities are limited to one day for many of us, it should be preferable to have this discussion beforehand, so both you, your immediate support system, and extended support system should have an understanding of what has been going on. This also allows for the inevitable comments and behaviours to be nipped in the bud. But, also allows for you to deal with the unconscious behaviours in a way that is appropriate, healthy, and suitable for you. Communication is one of the only ways people can learn and people can adjust their behaviours and attitudes.
Christmas is not all about the food.
Most Christmas adverts today centre around food. Christmas TV and film often features a huge, golden, and glistening turkey at the focal point of their dinner tables. There are numerous different Christmas-themed foods. And, there is a great amount of talk in the media and in the public about all the delicious food to be eaten. For someone with an eating disorder, where there is already a fixation placed upon food, this can be very overwhelming, as you know that everyone else will be thinking and talking about food, so it becomes all you can focus your attention on.
However, it may be helpful to focus on and discuss with your support system, and with yourself, the other aspects of Christmas that we celebrate that don’t revolve around food. This may help to take your mind off things concerning food and eating. A good idea is to run through a list of non-food related aspects of Christmas such as wintry walks, Christmas films and games, presents, taking naps, spending time with family, Christmas decorations and trees, Christmas pyjamas, midnight mass, carolling… There are so many lovely, delightful things about Christmas that don’t revolve around food.
If possible, could you have a conversation with your support system about trying to engage more proactively with different aspects of Christmas other than the big Christmas meal? It’s important for people, particularly whoever has cooked the meal, to receive some recognition for the food they have worked hard upon, and this should not be taken away from them. However, passed Christmas dinner, you could be in charge of organising follow up Christmas activities, or you work alongside members of your support system. This can also demonstrate the power of distraction, as you may have some of those negative, impactful emotions if you have eaten food, especially if it’s not a food you categorise as your safe food. Depending on the eating disorder you may be distressed at the idea you can’t purge, or that you have not restricted as “successfully” as you hoped to. Or, you may be concerned with the risk of binging when exposed to large quantities of food. So, if your mind is put to creating a list of Christmas activities. Not only does this get the family included, but it also gets you to focus on something else other than food talk or the food you’ve just eaten. Maybe you could go for a walk to see the Christmas lights after your dinner has settled? Or, figure out some immediate distractions to keep you feeling as emotionally and mentally well in that moment as you can be e.g. setting up a board game, or taking time to check through your Christmas presents to see how they work or what you can do with them. Even, helping to tidy up in the living room, away from the food in the dining room or the kitchen.
By focusing on the non-food Christmas things, then you may have an opportunity to keep distracted and realise there is more to Christmas than what we eat.
At some point, with all the engagement with family, a meal being eaten that may have caused stress for you, and the general excitement of Christmas, you will hit a wall. That wall can be associated by overstimulation, particularly if your eating disorder is co-morbid with another condition or disorder. You may have spent a lot of the day trying to hold back your anxieties, and tried to get involved with the family, tried to eat as much as you could to maintain recovery and let Christmas run as smoothly as possible. And, that in itself, is exhausting. It can be tiring to speak with your support system and extended support system for long periods of time, particularly if they have been unconsciously observing your eating disorder and your recovery progress. It can be at this point that you need some time to yourself to decompress.
As mentioned above, this is when effective communication comes in handy. You can speak to your support system about being given some alone time so you can process your thoughts or just simply get a chance to breathe and switch your brain off. Try to avoid going on your phone, but if you want to have a little scroll through a social media app then so be it. It could be an idea to get some fresh air in your garden or enter into a room that is a bit darker and cooler (the windows could have been left open for a period to allow adjustment in temperature). This can help you focus on your physical sensations such as the sound of your breathing or your heartbeat, arm hairs standing up on end due to the cold, your eyes adjusting to the darker room. Perhaps you can separate yourself to another room to listen to some music or read for a time. Set a timer to give you a chance to be alone, but not isolate yourself altogether. And, ensure your support system understand not to interrupt you until the timer has gone off and you are able to enter back into the Christmas environment of your own free will and accord.
And this counts for virtual Christmases which on Zoom, FaceTime etc. It can get overwhelming to have yourself unmuted and on camera for a period of time, so make it clear that you may need to turn the camera off for 5 minutes to gather yourself, or request a phone call/video call later to allow yourself some alone time. If needed, you can access chat rooms made available by charities like Beat (linked below) who normally are open for a number of hours on Christmas Dy with other options to contact them readily available.
This year, Christmas is going to be difficult. You may be have had your plans scrapped at the last minute. Members of your support system may not be there as hoped. You may not even be able to amongst your support system at all. I want you to know that every feeling you are having is a normal reaction to these abnormal circumstances. And, it’s time to allow for forgiveness for yourself. If you employ all the tactics you have in your arsenal in order to cope with Christmas, and it doesn’t quite hit the spot then please don’t punish yourself further. Christmas is a difficult, and Christmas during coronavirus is looking to be an especially difficult one. You are doing so well to survive through, and, if you just get through this festive period, then you are coping. You don’t have to do exceptionally well. You don’t have to do anything life changing.
But, don’t let your eating disorder use it as an opportunity to push your behaviours and disorder further. This is as good a time as ever to challenge the eating disorder, even if it is the smallest defiance against it. Try to reclaim that power it has taken from you. But, if you don’t, remember you haven’t failed. Your eating disorder will try to shame you for trying to break away from it. It may make you think you are weak, and as though you can’t stand on your own two feet without it. That is simply and wholly untrue. You are strong for even trying and for mentally challenging it through consideration of your recovery.
And, remember that if you have a support system, they are trying their best. Christmas can be such a positive experience, but it can be stressful for many different reasons, and can bring out so many negative emotions. If you feel you can’t have conversations right there and then, table it, and return to it later. If you feel it matters, then it will be discussed, even if not at the very moment the thought, situation or emotion arises. Your support system want this eating disorder to retreat so much so that they may be overeager in their attitudes, and this may be overwhelming, but they want the best for you and your mental and physical health.
Merry Christmas x
If you are struggling this Christmas, Beat is open to support you during the holidays via chat room, email, phone and message. Check out their page on coping strategies for carers and people with eating disorders at this time.
Beat: 0808 801 0677 (18 and over) / 0808 801 0711 (under 18s)
Samaritans: 116 123
Breathing Space: 0800 83 85 87
Young Minds Crisis Messenger: SHOUT to 85258
CALM: 0800 58 58 58
Childline: 0800 1111
UK and Ireland COVID-19 guidelines