Surviving Christmas with an Eating Disorder
By Holly Hawken and Bethany Morgan Brett
Navigating Christmas with an eating disorder can be anxiety provoking and stressful. Your family might prepare extravagant or unfamiliar foods and you may be expected to eat in front of extended family members. Changes to your usual routines around eating in addition to the pressure to eat or ‘indulge’ can be especially tricky to deal with.
It is important to remember though that Christmas does not have to be all about food, rather it is about enjoying yourself and the company of others. Below we offer you some guidance on how to get through this festive season.
Create an action plan
It is important that you discuss with your friends and family the plans surrounding Christmas
dinner. They need to be aware of your triggers and what you might struggle with the most, as
well as any unhealthy coping mechanisms you may try to resort to.
A great action plan would include:
A distraction technique before the meal.
Activities to participate in during the meal.
Discussion topics for the mealtime.
A distraction technique after the meal.
Talking to someone about how you feel about the meal and how you feel after it.
“Listen to your eating disorder and then do the exact opposite”.
Coping with Feeling Full
Once you have eaten you may get a feeling of satiation (the feeling of fullness), which can be uncomfortable when struggling with an eating disorder. However, knowing what going on inside your bodies, helps you to be more rational in your thinking and helps to relieve the anxiety you may experience after eating.
The science behind satiation
Hormones are released from the GI tract down by the stomach after you have eaten, these
hormones tell your brain that you are full, and you can stop eating now.
Chemical processes in the stomach start and help to aid digestion, your tummy my feel like it is churning, and you may become nauseous.
How long will I feel like this?
About half an hour after eating you will start to feel full, but don’t worry, you won’t feel like this forever.
You must remember that this feeling will pass.
It takes 2 to 5 hours for satiation to subside, this might feel like a long time to cope with the
thoughts and feelings that have been triggered. However, there are a few helpful phrases to help rationalise and manage during this time.
“I cannot physically gain weight from one meal”
“This food cannot kill me”
“My body needs food to function”
“Everything will be okay soon. This feeling will pass”
It is also important to bust two of the big food myths that might be troubling you.
“Carbohydrates are fattening” – FALSE!
Research has found that a steady proportionate intake of carbohydrates has no correlation with weight gain at all and actually promotes healthier eating. This is because of they have slow release energy factors and help you feel full.
“Eating late is bad for you” FALSE!
It doesn’t matter what time you eat; your body is a complex machine and needs energy for
metabolic process, even at night! If you eat a healthy amount of food, you will be healthy. It does not matter what time of day it is.
"You are not ‘fat’, you have fat. You also have toenails, but you are not ‘toenails’"
At Christmas you are surrounded by people who love you and they all want you to enjoy
yourself. Nobody is going to judge you, so it’s time to stop focusing on food and start focusing on your surroundings. There are a number of things you can do to help reconnect with your environment and present moment.
7/11 breathing – This is a really good way to escape a panic attack. Count to 7 when you inhale and then to 11 when you exhale. When you are frightened your heart races faster and your breathing gets faster and shallower, which increases your feeling anxiety and panic. This breathing technique fools your body into thinking it is calm.
Counting – Counting objects around the room is a good distraction when feeling overwhelmed. Whilst at the dinner table, count how many objects are on it that are not food, count how many feet are touching the floor (include tables and chairs) or simply count how many blue objects you can see in the room.
Notice your environment – Notice three things you can see, two things you can hear, and one thing that you can feel. Anxiety is about a fear of something in the future, so this technique will help you connect back to the present moment and your immediate environment.
Talk – Talking to a friend or family member about how you are feeling is really important. Or if
talking about your feelings is difficult, you could just state facts, for example;
“Today is Christmas day and I am having a good time”
“I am listening to Christmas music and it is good/bad”
“I am wearing my favourite multi-coloured socks today”
Self-soothing – It is important to surround yourself with things that make you feel comfortable and safe. A childhood blanket or a pair of fluffy socks can sometimes do the trick. Asking a friend to take part in one of your favourite hobbies can also be fun. The main aim is to concentrate on something that makes you feel good and distracts you from any current distress you may be experiencing.
Distraction – Distraction techniques are great for when you feel distressed or unsafe. Colouring books, reading a good book, board games, talking to someone, connecting with nature, going for a walk, watching your favourite programmes, movie marathons, or present opening are all good distractions.
Ask yourself “Will this matter 5 years from now?”
‘Treat Yo Self!’
During the festive season you are likely to be surrounded by lots of food that you do, or used to, enjoy eating. When faced with these foods, it can be hard to be kind to yourself. Here’s a few ways to tackle this problem.
Talk to someone
If you find yourself wanting to try something new or face a ‘food challenge’, make sure you tell someone. This can help you with rationalising all those scary thoughts that may come during the experience. Having someone there who can support you and knows what you’re going through can be a huge relief.
Make your environment safe and comfortable
Feeling safe is important and this is vital for avoiding any unhelpful coping mechanisms that you may have used in the past when faced with high levels of anxiety. In order to enjoy the experience of ‘treating yo self’, you have to feel comfortable doing it. Listening to your favourite music or watching a cringy Christmas film may make all the difference.
Remember - You deserve this, and you won’t lose control.
Christmas is about enjoying your life and the pleasures that surround you. You are allowed to eat things that taste good and the idea of ‘control’ is a way for the eating disorder to manipulate you.
There is absolutely no evidence saying you will gain weight or binge after eating something you enjoy. You are still the same beautiful person you have always been, and nothing will ever change that, not even a Christmas cake!
“Not everything we think is true”.
Managing the Post Dinner Diet Conversations
The worst feeling on earth is hearing about your relative talk about their diet plans for the New Year straight after eating a hearty meal. The discussion of your family’s weight loss tips and tricks can be super unhelpful. Remember that you do not need to engage in this conversation.
If possible, avoid this conversation at all costs! If you are at the dinner table, change the
conversation to a subject away from food (like what you are going to do in the New Year etc). If you can, leave the room or go for a walk. Find a way to distract yourself from anything weight-loss related.
Confronting the issue
If you are in a safe and trusted environment surrounded by people you love, it may be useful to confront the conversation. Try mentioning how it affects you and why you feel like the subject is damaging. You can even make a point in telling everyone how much you love them and feel like they don’t need to lose weight.
“If you are not recovering from an eating disorder, you are dying from one”.
Self-care and Mental Wellbeing
If you are in crisis then you need to seek professional help.
Teenage Mental Health: 07955 803539
Samaritans Help Line: 116 123
SANEline: 0300 304 7000
Childline (if you are under 19 years old): 0800 1111
If you feel suicidal or unsafe, contact 999 and ask for an ambulance.