This article was written by our caring colleague Adele Fox who is a Registered Psychologist specializing in individual and group-based support for eating disorders. We hope you will share this with your loved ones at this challenging time of year.
There is Little Merry about Christmas for those with Eating Disorders.
For most people, the holiday season is a wonderful time of year. It is often a time of family reunion, socializing, and celebration – a time when families, friends, and coworkers come together to share goodwill and good food. Yet, for those who suffer with eating disorders, this is often the worst time of the year. For those who are trapped in the private hell of an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, the holidays often magnify their personal struggles, causing them great internal pain and turmoil.
For those with an eating disorder, the sheer prevalence of food during the holiday season makes it very difficult to cope with and there is little merry about Christmas. Turn on the television and you’re greeted by an advertisement for sumptuous Christmas fare; go to the supermarket and you’re bombarded by brightly-packaged goodies; go to a family gathering and you’re offered food, food and more food.
An alcoholic can avoid situations in which people drink. A compulsive gambler can avoid betting shops. A person with an eating disorder can’t, however, avoid eating and food – and therefore Christmas, with its focus on feasting, is often an extremely difficult time of the year invoking overwhelming feelings of panic, anxiety, fear, and even revulsion.
In addition to food excess, the holiday season is also characterized by an increase in media advertisements promoting weight loss and other appearance-related motivations for entering the New Year with a newly toned body, which can worsen an eating disorder’s desire to restrict food intake or to purge.
For many, there may be an added social pressure and fear of being expected to eat with relatives or friends who don’t know about their struggles with food, eating or body image issues and who may threaten to expose or criticize it unwittingly. The distress and anxiety provoked by this can be so severe that it causes tears, panic attacks, angry outbursts or total avoidance, which can lead to arguments and an atmosphere of tension.
So a time to be merry, Christmas is sadly often not, for those with eating disorders and their loved ones. What can we do to help support and manage an eating disorder during Christmas so it is less stressful and more joyous?
Here are a few tips we hope will help you survive and thrive during this holiday season:
For the person struggling with an eating disorder:
- Be Proactive! The holiday is not a time to challenge yourself, it’s a time to embrace as much joy as possible by setting your environment up for success. Plan out approximately when you will eat meals and snacks, what they will be, and who will be present as it will enable you to anticipate and have as predictable and safe an experience as possible.
- The holidays can be a whirlwind of parties, gift exchanges, and visiting family members and friends. This frenzy of activity can add stress and compound what is already difficult. Cut down on events and obligations, say no, and give yourself time to relax and recharge.
- Have an exit strategy so that if you become overwhelmed, you can make a brief or extended escape. Tell people you can’t stay long as you have (blank) to do or someone waiting for you, or ask a trusting friend to call you at a certain time so you can use them as a reason to step away. Try to avoid putting yourself in situations where you have no control over being able to take care of yourself.
- Eat regularly. Do not starve yourself in anticipation of Christmas dinner or an event. This can lead to an increase of symptoms and stress. Eating 3 meals and 2-3 snacks a day will enable you to manage your urges and allow your body the fuel it needs to manage the day.
- If having to eat at a buffet or family style (food in serving dishes on the table) take a time out. When you sit down at a family style meal, take a look at the food (if you are unable to find out ahead of time what is being served) and then excuse yourself for a bathroom break in order to breathe, and visualize what you will put on your plate. Similarly at a buffet, do a walk about of the food table, and then step back and make your decision before serving up. Remember that even though there are numerous food items to choose from during celebrations, you don’t have to choose them all.
- Limit your alcohol intake. Alcohol can cause you to be disinhibited and lead to binging/purging behaviors and difficulties with managing your emotions. As well, you may find yourself being reluctant to eat because you believe you’ve drank your calories for the day.
- If attending a house function take one or two food items that are safe for you so that worst case scenario, you will be able to eat something. Another option is to arrive at a function after the meal and enjoy the after dinner events.
- Take time to look around and acknowledge the things around you that can put a smile on your face. A loved one’s off tune singing voice, your friend’s crazy holiday sweater, lights on a tree, or watching your co-worker’s antics at the work party! Don’t let your eating disorder monopolize your holiday.
For loved ones:
- Avoid talking about dieting and making weight/shape or appearance related comments. If you want to share a compliment, focus on non-appearance related traits……a person’s laugh, how their eyes light up when they smile, or their great sense of humor or intelligence.
- The holidays are not the time to cheerlead or challenge a loved that has an eating disorder. Asking them to eat more or telling them how great they did may only draw attention and cause added stress. If you are not sure what your loved one needs….ask! “What do you need me to say or do that can help you with this” is a great way to find out what you might be able to do that can be supportive. If you think a family member may not adhere to this, then reconsider inviting them.
- If possible, have meals served in the kitchen so there is not an abundance of food on the table. Ensure that you have a protein based food item that your loved one will be able to eat. Serve fun foods (chocolates, candy, dessert items, etc) at set times or have them laid out for a limited time and then put them away (freezer is great) or send them home with your guests.
- Take the focus off food and appearance. Board games, watching a movie, making a snowman, and attending events your community puts on over the holidays can be a way to distract the focus from the stressors faced by someone with an eating disorder.
- And last but not least, take care of yourself! Make sure that you have support such as a therapist, a trusted friend, online support groups, or literature on the recovery process. Loving someone who is struggling with an eating disorder can be exhausting and stressful.
With Best Wishes….
Adele Fox, MyndCare (Registered Psychologist www.myndcare.com) Providing individual and group based support for eating disorders
Calgary Silver Linings Foundation http://silverliningsfoundation.com/ Expanding the continuum of care for eating disorders in Alberta