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While the festive season is supposed to be a time for relaxation, for some the overload of messaging on overindulgence can be dangerous.
For many of us Christmas is a big party, a happy occasion where we can see our friends and family and indulge safe in the knowledge that it's a short term festive overload. For others, though, the festivities can be a source of deep anxiety, particularly if you are suffering, or in recovery from, an eating disorder (generally around the topic of weight gain).
The endless messaging of overindulgence means that Christmas can be a deeply triggering time of year. “There’s advent calendars and roast dinners and cocktails, and most of Christmas and Boxing Day revolves around extra-large meals,” says eating disorder campaigner Cara Lisette. “Throw in Christmas parties, various get togethers and family food traditions, and it’s a recipe for anxiety.”
Plus: convention is out the window. “Routine and ritualistic patterns around eating are very common in people with eating disorders. Structure can be a really important element of recovery, especially in the early days,” explains Lisette. “Deviating away from set times, specific meal plans and planned routines can be challenging.” That presents an opportunity too.
For those used to restricting themselves to routines and “safe foods”, Christmas is an opportunity to challenge yourself and push towards recovery.
The season is so problematic that in 2019 the NHS published their own guidelines on how to avoid triggers at Christmas. But the pandemic took hold just months later, intensifying rates of eating disorders to unprecedented levels. In fact, research released this summer by the BBC showed the number of under-20s admitted to hospital for eating disorder treatment over the past year had hit a height of 3,200 - 1,000 more than the previous year, and nearly 50% higher than in 2019-20.
Ironically, at a time when most people are excited to socialise and connect with others, those suffering from anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating and other disordered eating patterns may retreat from celebrations entirely. This large scale study from 2009 revealed that social withdrawal and anxiety related to social situations are common complaints among adults and adolescents with disordered eating.
“Christmas can be a very difficult time for those of us who have a complex relationship around food,” says Renee McGregor, an eating disorder specialist dietician. “With so much food available, anxiety levels can soar adding more stress to an already stressed out body.
"It is important to remember that food is not the enemy, but it does become the focus that provides a false sense of security that you ‘are in control’.
An anxious and hungry mind develops intrusive and irrational thoughts that lead us to believe that what we eat is going to have a negative impact on our body.
In reality, a nourished brain and body can think more clearly.”
McGregor advises those with these complex relationships with foods to remember that food is more than just energy. Particularly at Christmas, it’s central to our connections and relationships, which are in turn valuable for our sense of belonging. “Many people with eating disorders overlook how important these are and that when these are void in our lives, we go in search of other ways to attain our worth,” she says. “This Christmas, choose to take the opportunity to challenge the eating disorder’s narrative, and connect with those you love, even if that’s just by sitting around the table with them and having what feels comfortable. Focus on the feeling around being in that environment, rather than what is on your plate.”
Exacerbating the situation, of course, is the complete 180 from indulgence to transformation that starts as soon as Christmas Day is over. Eating “healthier”, losing weight and exercising are consistently amongst the most popular New Year’s resolutions. While for some a goal to be healthier is simply that, for others it’s the beginning of a slippery slope into restriction and illness.
“The whole idea of Christmas and the way it is ‘sold’ to us is this consumeristic time where people have to eat as much as they can for three days, and then in effect purge afterwards through diet and exercise,” says Hope Virgo, mental health campaigner and author of Stand Tall Little Girl, a memoir of anorexia and recovery. “There’s so much heightened emotion around the period, and pressure to be eating certain things. Whilst we know eating disorders aren't about the food, we know that they often present themselves in this way using food as a vehicle for expressing and numbing emotion. It is the fear around what the day will look like with the food, that often causes people with eating disorders to feel overwhelmed in this season.”
There are things that those suffering can do to help protect themselves and stay healthy over the festivities. “Take some time to work out what Christmas looks like for you,” advises Virgo, who is also the founder of #DumpTheScales, a movement to change the standard for eating disorder treatment, ensuring nobody is turned away by medical professionals for not being a certain weight.
“Set yourself challenges with food that your future self will be grateful for. Take some time for yourself. And when things do feel too much, send a message to someone ‘I don't feel okay today’. I know how hard that can feel, especially over the festive season, but if we can name those feelings, whilst others might not be able to fix them for us, it can help to address them and alleviate some of the guilt you might be feeling.”
Hope also recommends providing distractions for yourself if you’re feeling triggered - a walk, journaling, playing a board game - and stealing away alone time to decompress wherever possible. The guilt she mentions is central to the heady atmosphere of Christmas, and the misconception amongst sufferers that somehow their illness is ‘ruining’ the festivities for everyone else. “We put this pressure on Christmas being ‘perfect’ so it is important to remember that what we see on social media isn't the reality of everyone's Christmas and only tells part of the story,” says Hope.
And the onus, of course, is not just on the person with the eating disorder, but on their loved ones too. If someone you care about is struggling with weight gain, there’s plenty you can do to make them feel safe. “Include the person in all your plans as early as possible,” advises Cara. “Encourage them to follow whatever routine they need to keep themselves well, and don’t pressure them to bend to your own structure. Make other people are aware of triggering topics, or comments to avoid. And try to fill the day with activities that aren’t just based around food, so they feel included.
Remember that, while it might just feel like a day to other people, to some it feels hugely challenging to get through.”