How To Get Through Christmas When You're Recovering From An Eating Disorder
The Debrief: Christmas is tough if you're struggling with food issues
Christmas might be the best time ever for most people, but navigating through the holidays’ food excesses and celebrations can feel like running through a minefield if you're affected by anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder.
A report from earlier this year suggests that more than 725,000 people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder and, as confirmed by Beat – the biggest eating disorders charity in the UK – Christmas is perhaps the most challenging time of the year, for them. Rebecca Field, head of communications, says: 'Celebrations which centre on food and group and family meals are almost inescapable during the holiday season, and can cause tremendous anxiety for these individuals.'
So, if you, or anyone you know, struggles with food around Christmas time - here are some ideas to help you ease into the festive spirit and stay strong through the ups and downs of recovery.
Plan in advance
A bit of a killjoy but, as far as spontaneity goes, it might be a good idea to look out for the toughest challenges and prepare.
For Rhiannon Pursall, a 30-year-old who’s been struggling with anorexia since the age of 19, the biggest struggle is to consume a meal during the daytime. Christmas lunch had been her nemesis for years, until she opened up to her family and negotiated a safer plan. 'It’s definitely not a case of letting [the eating disorder] win,' she comments. 'It doesn’t mean that everyone goes "oh okay, do whatever you want" but people need to realise I cannot go from eating nothing to eating a massive roast at lunchtime, overnight'.
Restaurant meals represent another common critical situation. Buffets, especially, can be mentally exhausting. Adding to the pressure of eating in front of others, is the overwhelming choice for foods and portions. Priya Tew, a nutritionist specialising in eating disorders, offers a simple strategy: 'Plan to eat a small selection of foods and have a snack to hand to top yourself up if you know you have not eaten enough at that meal.'
At home, there are things to make meal times easier, she says. 'For example, do you want to be able to plate up for yourself or have some safer [foods] on the table that you can manage?' Discussing details beforehand could make a difference, and it won’t ruin anyone’s party, promise.
Reach out for support
No one should be dealing with an eating disorder alone, especially during the holidays, when patients are away from their therapists.
It maybe easier to share only part of the truth with others, suggests London-based counselling psychologist Kate Scruby: 'You might say "I'm really worried the food at the buffet will be really different to what I'm used to" or "I'm really nervous about the buffet and I’m worried I might cancel on the day. Can we meet earlier so you can distract me?" Some support is better than none.' So, at events, if there is no one to go to, perhaps stay in contact with someone via text.
Opening up to people is hard, but you can't always pretend everything's fine
Sam Thomas, the founder and director of MGEDT, a national eating disorders charity dedicated to men, points out how eating is considered normalised behaviour and how that sets up expectations about dinners or parties. 'Like you’ve got to be able to eat a three-course meal, or the pressure that you have to be able to eat and talk, or even be social with people [while you’re eating], which is a big issue', he explains. Many sufferers just avoid these situations completely, sometimes for years, because of the anxiety and pressure.
Like Rhiannon did: 'In the past, when I was still trying to hide, I would just come up with excuses [for my work Christmas party]. I’d even pay the deposit, choose the menu and then, last minute, I would be ill on that day or some other excuse'.
Things have progressed so much that she’s now asked to join her work Christmas do, with a different menu option. She says: '[Openness] turns [the eating disorder] from your little thing that you’re struggling on your own with, to something that everyone helps you with. It kinda boosts you to fight, once you’re open with everybody.'
It's okay to take up a challenge, it's okay to know you can't
No pressure here but, depending on how far into recovery one is, they may feel brave enough to try foods or situations they would normally avoid. Psychologist Scruby suggests setting a few challenges to gain confidence: eating a packed lunch in a public place or going to an unknown restaurant for a meal. But she adds: 'Be kind to yourself about what you can and eventually manage to do.'
It’s all about being gentle
Kate Threlfall, a 27 year-old with a teenage history of bulimia and binge eating, talks about her experience: 'It's about saying "maybe if I go, in the long run this will get easier", doing that on the days you feel strong, and on the days when you don’t feel strong going ‘I need to stay at home, I need to do something else’”.
On her past struggle with Christmas meals and celebrations, she says: 'I was fortunate enough to be able to say: for this meal I need to bow out. I need to do my own thing privately, I need to stick to the meal I was intending to eat and go and eat that somewhere quietly. And then join everybody else afterwards.'
Indeed, Rhiannon Lambert, a registered nutritionist from London who works with clients recovering from eating disorders, warns about the risks of pushing sufferers too far: 'Someone at a really low weight, if they overdo it at Christmas, there’s a chance they may damage their body internally as well. Pressuring someone with an eating disorder to eat a whole roast and the Christmas pudding could be more damaging than people actually realise.'
The goal is to recognise feelings and manage them in helpful ways, explains psychologist Scruby. She suggests writing some kind words before an event – ‘Its ok to be scared but I need to learn to manage unusual situations' – or maybe address directly the eating disorder thoughts – 'I know you don't want me to go to this buffet, but I want to push myself to have a different life and to do this I need to do difficult things sometimes.’
And she adds: 'Remember, however anxious you feel, you can manage.'
Happy Christmas guys, and good luck. You're not alone - and, remember, there's loads of excellent resources on Beat.
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