Joelle Fa, Psychologist, Baulkham Hills NSW
11 December 2018
Christmas. It’s fast approaching, and while for some it is a time of hope, thanksgiving and family gathering, for those living with an eating disorder, it can be an entirely different experience.
Through the lens of a person with an eating disorder, the holiday season usually means a time of overwhelming food choices, stressful social situations, attempting to hide or explain a painful disorder to family members and dealing with the myriad of difficult and intense emotions that these situations provoke. In many ways, Christmas and the holiday season can be less joyful when living with or recovering from an eating disorder.
Reconnect with your reasons for recovery
If you are struggling with recovery during this time of the year, it is important to remember why it is that you began this journey. Remember that you are fighting for your life, and a meaningful one at that, and while things may feel increasingly overwhelming at this time of the year, your recovery is the most important thing worth fighting for.
Prepare yourself and your loved ones
Preparation can be very helpful in managing potentially stressful meal times during the Christmas season. Talk to your relatives in advance about what may help and what may not be helpful, or have a trusted loved one do this for you if you don’t feel comfortable.
Ask a family member to explain that any comments about appearance, even “you look well” could be misinterpreted by a person with an eating disorder (to suggest weight gain/fatness) and it is best to avoid any comments about appearance. It is also best to avoid any comments about anyone else’s appearance and certainly to avoid discussion about New Year diets. Comments about how much food is being eaten are also unhelpful (e.g. “I’m stuffed”).
Use mindfulness strategies to manage food anxiety
If you are daunted by the amount of food that is available during social gatherings, serve your meal portion to your plate beforehand to help with being mindful of what and how much you are eating. If you are worried about over-eating from the Christmas potluck, practice engaging each of your senses during the eating process- what does the food look, taste, smell, feel and sound like and how does that change from when it is on your plate to when you are chewing and swallowing it.
Manage your environment where possible
If the Christmas meal is likely to be a pressure-filled situation, consider inviting only close family and friends to your Christmas meal. Try to set up the best possible environment for eating during difficult meals by sitting close to a loved one or trusted person, or having them eat difficult foods with you. At the wider family gathering, consider participating in a way in which food (particularly the sitting down meal) is not the primary focus, for example, going for a short family walk together or a more informal ‘drop-in’.
Plan an enjoyable activity to engage in after the meal as a distraction such as watching a movie together or playing a board game. If Christmas meals feel too overwhelming during the holiday season, engage in other activities that are more pleasurable – go Christmas light looking with a loved one, attend a carols service, volunteer at a shelter to spread some holiday cheer or engage in some self-care.
Build new traditions that support your recovery
Christmas traditions may take on a whole new meaning when you are in recovery from or living with an eating disorder. Spend some time thinking about the traditions that you love or enjoy over Christmas, and engage in things that cultivate gratitude and hope in your own life. Start new traditions that celebrate or support your recovery efforts. It’s never too late to start your own traditions too. Whatever you do, remember the greatest gift is the gift of your own recovery.
If you are struggling to cope with an eating disorder over Christmas and want to talk to someone, call the Butterfly Foundation’s National Helpline ED HOPE (1800 33 4673), open 8am to 12am AEST, 7 days a week (except national public holidays).
Psychologist, Baulkham Hills NSW
Joelle is a compassionate, respectful psychologist who has worked with clients of all ages from diverse backgrounds. Joelle’s experiences have provided rich opportunities to grow in understanding of how mental health issues can impact people from all walks of life and affect engagement with work or study, as well as relationships with others, while potentially obstructing us from living out our values. Joelle has a particular interest in supporting individuals with eating disorders to reconnect with the values and find freedom from eating and exercise rules. Joelle takes a holistic, client-directed approach to recovery, which considers each person’s unique goals and values, while maintaining a solid foundation in evidence-based theory.