Mental Health Nurse, and Beat Ambassador, Emma Richard’s “TOP TIPS” for Coping At Christmas

Christmas is thought of as a time of year to celebrate and share with loved ones, it’s meant to be a fun filled experience full of festivities and joy. However living with an eating disorder at Christmas time can be incredibly difficult.

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Much of the focus is around food and drink, with Christmas dinners, work parties, nights out and Christmas meet ups taking place. This can become overwhelming and provokes high levels of anxiety for those with eating difficulties. 

I remember when I was little I used to be excited for the prospect of chocolate for breakfast, advent calendars and the frequent extra treats that Christmas brought, however when I was ill I found myself consumed by anxiety and fear at the prospect of being surrounded by so much food. 

I experienced many Christmases with an eating disorder, on several occasions I was receiving treatment from a specialist in-patient unit, and then later during my recovery back in the community. So I get it. I understand your anxieties and I want to reassure through this post that you can survive this season.

Seasonal Struggles

Social company, and being in social situations, was something I also found very difficult.
As a result of being full absorbed within my anorexia I had developed a number of habits and behaviours which to the ‘normal’ person would appear incredibly odd.

A distinct memory I have was never been able to sit down with friends and family as I felt the need to stand in order to use more energy.
I felt so silly and embarrassed and I was aware that everyone was looking at me. I desperately wanted to sit down and enjoy myself however every time I even entertained the idea the voice in my head would become louder and louder screaming abuse at me for considering to break my deeply ingrained rules and ridged habits

Feelings of Missing Out

I also remember at times feeling incredibly sad that I wasn’t able to fully relax and enjoy myself as my friends and family were doing.
Consequently I felt guilty as my family would encourage me to join in activities, such as playing board games and watching Christmas films, however I just felt I wasn’t able to let go of the grip that my illness had over me. This upset my family and led to arguments and a feeling that I had disappointed everyone. I felt totally controlled by my eating disorder and looking back it is hard to realise how much it restricted my enjoyment during that period. 


I did however manage to survive several Christmases whilst being poorly and I’d like to share some of the things that I think looking back, helped me cope through this time. 


1) PLAN!

My number one piece of advice is to plan. I made sure that I planned everything in advance. This included what I was going to eat at social occasions, what I was going to eat on the day itself and who would be present at these occasions. 

2) Handling Foody Social Occasions
At first I chose not to eat at socials/parties, these occasions as initially just being around my friends again was creating high levels of anxiety. I would have meals and snacks at home with my mum or family and then go and socialise separately.
This also enabled me to build back friendships and focus on being with people away from the expectations of having to eat at these socials. I knew I had eaten what I needed to for that day and then could focus on distracting myself at parties.

Slowly I became more used to being around people and as my recovery progressed I felt more comfortable eating in front of others and sharing what they ate.

2) Communication
When thinking about planning for social occasions, I often felt too embarrassed to speak to my friends about these arrangements but luckily my mum had an honest and open relationship with my friends which meant she could find out timings, what food/drinks would be there and who would be there.
This helped calm my nerves as I was aware of what to expect.

I would recommend finding someone who you feel you can trust to ask these questions to if you feel embarrassed to do this yourself.

I was lucky that I had a good group of supportive friends who knew what things to say to help me and what would possibly make it harder. It would be a good idea to think who you feel comfortable with and if you are able to have a chat with them about what things they may be able to do to support you in social situations. 

This brings me onto my next piece of advice which focuses on dealing with relatives/friends and occasional unhelpful comments.

3) Handling Comments

Often relatives can say ‘the wrong things’. I’ve had my fair share of ‘oh don’t you look well’ comments and ‘just make sure you don’t forget to eat’.

These comments can be triggering for people with eating disorders. Being told that you ‘look well’ can be misinterpreted as ‘fat’ or having gained weight and it can cause a sufferer internal turmoil at a time when they are really trying hard to block out unhelpful thoughts.
Nevertheless it’s so important to remember that relatives often have our best interests at heart and mean the comment well. 

Eating disorders are widely misunderstood and sometimes people are unsure of what to say for fear of upsetting the person. When I was greeted with a ‘don’t you look well’ at a family party from one of my relatives, initially I found this awfully triggering however as I grew stronger against my anorexia I was able to reframe this thought. I was able to think of all the other physical qualities that this comment might be complimenting, such as how my skin looked glowing and how my hair looked thicker and shinier. 


4) Learning Flexibility
Eating out more meant I had to be flexible with my meal plan, and be prepared to swap around meal times and lunch in place of dinner and visa versa.

I’m not going to lie and say that it was easy, it was hard and often my anorexia would try and take advantage of these instances. I also experienced thoughts about restricting my intake during the day in order to ‘save calories’ due to an upcoming social event that I knew I was eating at.
It was a constant battle fighting these thoughts all the time, but it was worth it.

Remind yourself that although changes in routine are scary, this is only for the short term, Christmas is only around for 4 weeks a year and you’ll find everyone in the same position having to break their normal routines to fit with the festivities around.
Nothing bad happens to them, so why would it to you?

If you are further along with your recovery journey and you wish to experience more of the food side of Christmas, make a conscious effort to think about how these things can be included in your current meal plan.
For instance a mince pie could replace your usual afternoon snack. This will help to control anxiety levels and will in turn allow you to feel part of the experience more.  Planning this into your meal plan may also help with controlling thoughts of wanting to restrict or binge certain foods.


5) Be Kind To Yourself

My final piece of advice is to be kind to yourself.
Christmas is an incredibly stressful time of year, especially when you have an eating disorder. There is lots of pressure on you and your family and everyone is conscious of making sure people have a good time.

Try not to compare this Christmas with previous Christmases when you have been well as this will feel different. You definitely don’t deserve to be feeling guilty for how your eating disorder has changed the experience for you and your family.
Focus on enjoying other Christmas traditions that don’t revolve around food, such as carol singing, wrapping presents, decorating the tree and going to Christmas markets

If you have a slip, don’t worry, recovery is full of ups and downs and it’s inevitable that at times your eating disorder will win over. Don’t ruminate over negative thoughts, pick yourself back up again and start where you left off.
It’s so important to care for yourself through this stressful time (easier said then done I know) at the end of the day you are the one putting all the hard work in to get better.


I hope you can get through this Christmas and look forward to many more Christmases where you will be free to enjoy the full festivities. 



 

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