We all want to enjoy the ‘perfect Christmas’, but in reality, the festive season can be incredibly stressful and a source of tremendous anxiety.
As a holiday centred around food and drink (and family!), Christmas is often a trigger for people living with an eating disorder. Rather than experiencing ‘all the festive feels’, this time of year can feel more like a living Nightmare Before Christmas.
In this post, senior psychologist with Altum Health, Dr Lauren Coles, explores some of the key challenges faced by those living with an eating disorder at Christmas time, and shares her expert tips for how to manage Christmas anxiety.
The festive party
Whether you’re at university or in the workplace, Christmas brings an opportunity to gather for festive drinks, dinners, and parties.
While friends are excitedly preparing for a big night out, if you’re living with an eating disorder, the prospect of Christmas drinks or parties may be leaving you feeling anxious and on edge.
Ordinarily, these events are planned by other people, meaning you have little to no control over what they’ll be like. So, it’s normal to have concerns about where the event will take place, who will be there, and what food and drink will be available. Anxiety often revolves around the unknown.
This typically leads you to build up the worst case scenario in your head and start plotting reasons why you can’t attend. This is normal. Anxiety is not a comfortable feeling and you’re looking for ways to reduce it.
However, there are other options, and with a bit of strategy and planning, and by breaking your worry down into bite size chunks, you can learn to manage your Christmas anxiety and hopefully, enjoy some of the festivities.
How to prepare for Christmas parties with an eating disorder
In this section, we’ll look at the anxiety that can build in the run up to Christmas parties – often centred on food and drink – and how to manage it.
But first, let’s check in on your breathing.
Take a breath. Take a pause
When we feel anxious, we tend to hold our breath and take quick, shallow breaths. This stimulates our sympathetic nervous system and can act to make us even more anxious. Try to replace this with long, deep breaths to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system – the part that helps you feel calm and relaxed.
When we feel anxious, we also typically think in a more irrational way. It’s just how our brains are designed. We can catastrophize things. So it’s a good idea to try to ‘put a pin’ in the worry and return to it when you’re feeling a bit calmer.
It’s also very helpful to talk to someone who’s aware of your situation. Simply talking through your worries about what you feel could go wrong can help to put things into perspective and reduce your Christmas anxiety.
What’s on the menu?
If you’re concerned about going out for a Christmas meal with friends or work colleagues, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for the menu in advance. Plenty of people do this due to dietary restrictions or religious beliefs. It’s not an odd request.
Knowing what’ll be on offer beforehand gives you valuable preparation time. If you feel it would be too difficult for you to order from the menu, it’s ok to eat beforehand or afterwards.
Are you having a drink?
Christmas festivities often involve gatherings where people will be drinking alcohol. Depending on your own experience and relationship with alcohol, this could be tricky for you.
When you struggle with an eating disorder, you may worry about how alcohol fits into a plan that feels safe for you, or you may worry about feeling out of control when you drink.
Remember, you do not have to drink if you don’t want to. Focus on what feels doable and achievable for you. You might feel more comfortable abstaining completely, and that’s ok.
Do what feels right for you, depending on what stage of your eating disorder recovery you’re at and what you’re working towards. Think about what a successful evening looks like for you.
Worried about late night snacking?
The final point I’d like to add about festive parties is that if we do have alcohol, we often feel more hungry.
Our bodies need food in order to break alcohol down, so it’s normal to want something to eat after a night out. However, this can feel scary if you’re living with an eating disorder as you might still be learning to trust your body’s natural hunger signals.
My advice is to prepare for this in advance. Assume you’re going to have something to eat when you get home after your night out. Normalise this so you’re less likely to feel guilty when it happens.
The pressure for perfection
Christmas can sometimes feel utterly overwhelming. TV ad breaks seem to be a constant churn of images of ‘the perfect Christmas’, and magazines are stuffed full of pages explaining how to look or feel a certain way. It sometimes leaves us feeling that we’re ‘not good enough’.
First of all, I’d like to dispel the myth that there is such a thing as ‘the perfect Christmas’. It’s merely an idealised version created by marketers. And it’s another huge cause of Christmas anxiety.
Understandably, when you’re in recovery, you probably want to do Christmas exactly how you used to be able to do it, but you might not be there just yet, and that‘s ok. Just try your best. Recovery is about commitment, not perfection. Even if you have one bite of your Christmas dinner, that’s progress. It’s a step forward from where you were before.
And if you think back over previous Christmases, your memories aren’t generally about what you wore, how you looked, or what you ate. They’re about who you spent time with, the traditions you enjoyed, the board games you played, and perhaps gathering for the Queen’s speech. Although this year I think we’re all a little anxious about Charles’ inaugural speech! He’s got some pretty big shoes to fill!
How to manage Christmas expectations with an eating disorder
Clients have told me that they’re concerned about their family’s expectations of them at Christmas time, and they’re worried about ‘ruining Christmas’ for others.
Sometimes family think you’re further along in your recovery than you are, so it can be helpful to set expectations beforehand to avoid upset during Christmas lunch when you’re unable to touch your dessert, for example.
I would encourage you to have a conversation with family members before Christmas to explain where you are. Explain what you feel comfortable doing and your plan for Christmas day. This will help you to feel more in control in an otherwise overwhelming situation.
The Christmas ‘fullness’
Another important point to note about Christmas dinner and all the treats that surround the celebrations, is that it’s normal to eat more than you would at a usual meal and feel full.
Nobody sets out with the intention to be uncomfortably full on Christmas day, but we do indulge ourselves a bit more. Food is a key part of celebration, and Christmas is arguably the year’s most celebratory day. It’s one day, meant for relaxation, and eating in this way doesn’t become a pattern for most of us. So try to give yourself permission. Sometimes it can be reassuring to step outside of yourself and see what other people are doing. If other people are doing it, it’s ok.
‘New year, new you’ diet culture
It’s no surprise that as we approach the new year, the media will be flooded with messages about diet and exercise. Diet culture is everywhere, and it’s damaging to us all.
But if you’re living with an eating disorder, you can be even more sensitive to it, often feeling it’s aimed at you. It’s what we call ‘confirmation bias’: you may be looking for evidence that you should be losing weight, and the messaging around diets will offer that.
Remember, diet culture is not here to try to make anyone happy and healthy, it’s here to make money from people. If diets worked they’d sell themselves out of business and they never do. People go back time and time again. Diets are meant to fail because you’re meant to feel you didn’t try hard enough or that you didn’t do it right. Not that the diet didn’t work, but that it’s you that didn’t work properly.
Keeping this in mind, we think the best way to cope with the unhelpful messaging around diet culture is to prepare for it.
It’s not your message to hear
You must try to focus on what you need, in your current situation, regardless of the messages you’re seeing and hearing in the media. Think about what’s important to you.
These unhelpful and often damaging messages will be churned out again, just like they are every year, but they’re not for you. It’s not your message to hear. You don’t need that message. Indeed, none of us need that message. Your focus is on working towards having a healthy, balanced relationship with food.
Ask yourself, if you were to listen to these diet messages, where would that path lead you? What would happen to you? You may start to feel awful, begin restricting or bingeing again, and then where would that lead? You’d likely be really unwell again and you’d undo all your hard work.
The ‘no-filter’ relatives
You know who we’re talking about. Those relatives who can’t help but comment on your weight and what you’re eating over the holidays.
These are people who you care about, but are really difficult to be around. So you get mixed feelings whirring inside.
You might dread seeing a certain person because of how they make you feel, but then you feel bad that you’d rather not see them because you love them and you feel you should spend time with them. Perhaps you also feel frustrated that this person makes throwaway comments about your weight and it’s you that has to take them onboard while they seemingly don’t even register your discomfort. These are uncomfortable feelings, so what can be done?
Rest assured you’re not alone. Granted, very few people will post on Instagram, “My Auntie called me fat today”, but don’t be fooled into thinking everyone’s Christmas is happy and perfect, because it’s not.
The photos of the happy smiling family doesn’t show the argument that happened five minutes before.
The filtered images uploaded by influencers are not a representation of real life. It’s their job to keep up this unrealistic image all the time (though we wish they would just stop and show us their REAL selves).
So my first tip is to try to mix up your Instagram account a little. Try following more body positivity/acceptance influencers, or even people you know, as they tend to share less edited versions of themselves.
If you feel comfortable enough to challenge somebody on a comment they’ve made about your weight or what you’re eating, you could ask, “What did you mean by that?” or, “What were you hoping to achieve with that comment?”
Sometimes people make comments without thinking about it. When you ask them to expand on what they meant it throws them off and can make them think more carefully about what they’re saying.
We often just try to avoid spending time with people who comment on our weight, which isn’t a bad idea, but if you’re going to be seeing them every Christmas, why should they get to talk about other peoples’ bodies like that? Your body is none of their business.
Quite often, when people comment on other people’s weight or body shape, it’s often a reflection of themselves and what they consider important. If they care so much about other people’s weight, they probably care quite a lot about their own weight. Actually, what we need to encourage is a move away from weight being an indicator of value, goodness, and happiness.
If you don’t feel able to challenge someone on comments they’ve made, we have plenty of other ways to manage difficult relatives this Christmas in this post.
Remember, the important part of all of this is to try to enjoy yourself. Be grateful and thankful that you get to spend Christmas with your family, or see your friends, if that’s how you do Christmas (there’s no right or wrong way to do this). You may find our post: 12 ways to a positive Christmas helpful.
Food is a big part of our culture and part of being social. We want you to be able to enjoy it and hopefully, you’ll get to a point where you can again. You’ll get there, it’s just going to take some time.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, or another mental health problem, please get in touch to find out how our licensed and trained professionals can help. Click here to book your free, 20-minute consultation.
Dr Lauren Coles