How to get through Christmas with an eating disorder
Christmas is usually a time of year that a lot of people can’t wait for. Spirits are clearly not so high this year though. The coronavirus pandemic has forced this Christmas to be a very different one, and with what has been such a difficult year, there are so many people out there feeling the heaviness of the restrictions placed upon us all to try to control the spread of the virus. For people with eating disorders though, such restrictions and the resultant changes to Christmas may cause even more distress to what has already been months and months of anxiety.
Christmas is very much focused on food and drink, so it is not surprising that people with eating disorders can dread this time of year. Some changes to Christmas this year may be a relief to some sufferers, as Christmas parties and other festive gatherings have had to be cancelled, so there are less events to worry about and less disruption to routines.
Many people with eating disorders manage each day with routines. These routines are not just around food - such as how food has to be prepared, what time they can eat, what they can eat and how they can eat it – but also around daily tasks, such as going for a walk, for example. Christmas can throw these routines into disarray, especially on Christmas day, with the focus of the day being Christmas dinner. This can cause a lot of anxiety for someone living with an eating disorder and bring a lot of misery to a day that is meant to be joyful.
So what may help make Christmas day more bearable for someone with an eating disorder?
Planning Christmas hasn’t been easy with the ever-changing coronavirus restrictions, but now that the rules have been set, planning what Christmas day will look like can be really useful for someone with an eating disorder so that they can prepare themselves.
Discuss who will be there for Christmas dinner, so the person with the eating disorder can decide whether they feel comfortable enough to join others at the table for Christmas dinner, or whether they would find it easier to eat on their own, and join others afterwards. Decide this beforehand and make loved ones who will be joining you for dinner aware of this, so no awkward questions arise on the day to make the person with the eating disorder feel uncomfortable about how they want to best navigate eating on the day. It can also be useful to tell loved ones to avoid making comments such as “you’re looking well” to the person with the eating disorder. This often gets interpreted as “you’ve gained weight” in the mind of someone with an eating disorder, which is not at all helpful.
Planning with the person with the eating disorder what they feel they will manage to eat on the day can also help ease anxiety. Being faced with a plate of food that is completely out of the person’s comfort zone is unrealistic and can cause distress. If the person is comfortable enough to serve themselves their meal at the table, ensure they are sat next to someone who they feel can support them with their portion sizes. Also, planning what the person with the eating disorder may manage to eat can help stop bingeing, as not planning what the person is comfortable eating may leave the person eating very little, which can lead to bingeing later. Plan as much as you can to avoid unnecessary panic and unhealthy eating behaviours.
It can further be useful to have a plan in place to implement if the person with the eating disorder is really struggling when eating. This could be agreeing on a signal that the person with the eating disorder will do to get their main support’s attention, to indicate that they are struggling. For example, playing with a napkin or putting their cutlery down. Ensuring there is gentle encouragement available when needed can be very supportive.
Distractions can be really useful when it comes to easing anxiety around eating. Talking about things that aren’t food related or having music on can be helpful in taking the focus away from the meal. Distraction is just as important after the meal. People with eating disorders are likely to feel guilty afterwards for what they have eaten, so doing things after the meal such as playing games or opening presents can be good distractions. These kinds of distractions can also lessen the chance of binges or trying to get rid of the food that’s been eaten.
Christmas day can be overwhelming as it is, even without the struggles of having an eating disorder. It is therefore important for someone with an eating disorder to try to fit in something healthy during the day that helps them to cope. This could be going for a walk, reading a book, listening to music or just being on their own for a little while – whatever it is that makes the person feel they are having what they need to best manage the day.
Everyone is different
Although the above may be useful for some people with an eating disorder, everyone is different. What may be useful to one person may be problematic for another. What is important is to take the time to speak with the person struggling with an eating disorder ahead of Christmas, so you can listen and try to understand what they will find helpful to best cope with Christmas day or other Christmas events.
Please remember, eating disorders are not a choice. They are incredibly complex and it should never be underestimated just how much a person can be suffering in their mind when it comes to Christmas. A person can feel very alone with their eating disorder, so taking the time to be there for them this Christmas can make a huge difference.