Christmas With an Eating Disorder

We know that Christmas can be a really difficult time of year for many people with eating disorders. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas yourself, it can be hard to avoid increased food talk, and the sense that this time should be spent having fun may make people feel isolated and pressured. This year, coronavirus restrictions around the country may mean you have additional worries about the coming festive season. The information on this page is to help you address some of the concerns you might have, and make plans to take care of your wellbeing.

It’s a good idea to talk with people you trust about your concerns and what they can do to support you during the run-up to Christmas and Christmas itself. Also remember that Beat’s Helpline does not close over Christmas; you can call us for support from 4pm – 8pm from 24 December through to 1 January.

Not being able to spend Christmas as planned

You may be facing a Christmas that looks different to usual, for example if the three-household rule means you won’t be able to see everyone you usually do, if you’re struggling with travel arrangements, or if you or someone you’d usually see at Christmas feels there is significant risk to having Christmas as usual. At a time when careful planning can help so much with getting through the holiday, we understand this is very worrying for a lot of people.

We encourage you to think about what your Christmas might look like if your usual plans may not go ahead. This may help you to feel surer about what is going to happen and address areas where you may want to put in place extra support or ways to cope with difficult situations. You can download our template to help you with this.

We advise people to follow local and national guidance around coronavirus. However, you and those you’re spending Christmas with may feel differently about the level of risk, or interpret parts of the guidance differently. This may be difficult to navigate and could cause more anxiety at a time that is often already hard. It could help to write down your thoughts about the situation and what you’re personally comfortable with, then discuss this with the people you’d like to see at Christmas to see where there is common ground and where there may be room for compromise (within the boundaries of official guidance).

It may also be useful to think about what parts of your usual Christmas routine are necessary for your wellbeing, and which bits might be easier to change this year – for example, is there a particular person who usually supports you who you might be able to see by themselves rather than in a group?

The focus on food

It’s almost impossible to get away from food at this time of year, and this along with encouragement by others to “indulge” can be stressful or upsetting. It may create additional pressure to eat, or cause increased worry about bingeing.

  • You may find you can minimise exposure from adverts and supermarket aisles in the run-up to Christmas by, for example, using an adblocker online, or asking someone else to do the shopping.
  • Thinking about what you’ll eat for Christmas dinner and other meals ahead of time, or even having a practice meal, might help. You can talk about the things that are worrying you and how to address them with your loved ones. Agreeing on the food you’ll be eating, what time meals will be, portion sizes and who else will be there means you know what to expect, and don’t have to make decisions on the spot.
  • Anxieties might be worse if the table is covered in food, so keeping some food elsewhere, or even serving the meal fully away from the table could help. You may feel less “watched” if you’re having different food or portions, and have less concern about extra food being added to your plate without you asking.
  • Think about what would be most comfortable when serving food. The trend might be for people to serve themselves, or for one person to dish up everyone’s meals, but think about what would make you most comfortable – you could speak to someone supportive about what you feel able to eat and have them get your food for you, copy their portion if you’d rather serve yourself but aren’t sure what to take, or just have them come with you while you serve yourself if you’d find their presence helpful.
  • Distractions during meals, like having music on can help. You may also find it helpful to think of distractions for after the meal, as this is when you’re most likely to feel the urge to binge or get rid of food eaten – plan these beforehand and consider having post-meal conversation or activities away from the table.
  • The idea of sitting at the table for hours can feel overwhelming, so it may help to agree on an amount of time to spend at the table, and when it’s okay to leave.
  • It can help to talk through things like traditional stocking fillers and whether they should be part of Christmas this year. If you’re worried about being given food-based gifts, for example by people who aren’t aware of the eating disorder, you could talk with someone you trust about what you’d like to do with these before opening presents.

Eating in front of other people

It may have been a while since you’ve seen the people you’re spending Christmas with, or you may find yourself somewhere you didn’t expect to this year. Regardless, eating a meal in front of others can be really difficult, especially at this time of year when meals like Christmas dinner are seen as particularly important or special.

  • It might help to give family and friends information to help them understand more about eating disorders and what you would find useful.
  • Knowing who will be there as part of planning the day can help you feel more prepared.
  • You could agree on a sign to discreetly show when you need support and encouragement, either during a meal or socially, e.g. playing with a tangle-toy/phone above the table.

Unhelpful comments and pressure

Lots of talk around food at this time of year can be difficult to hear, and even well-meaning comments on what you’re eating or how you look may be upsetting or triggering. This year, it may also be longer than usual since you’ve seen the people you’ll be spending Christmas with, or you may be spending your Christmas somewhere different to usual, so you may be particularly concerned about unhelpful comments.

  1. It can help to have someone tell family members and friends who know about the eating disorder not to comment on your appearance, or what/how much food you’re eating.
  2. You or someone supporting you may also want to request that others not offer you additional food, perhaps by saying that you’ve planned what you’re eating so you can have the most enjoyable day possible.
  3. You may want to think about other topics of conversation you can turn to if there’s a lot of talk around food – perhaps you could discuss these with a supportive person so they can step in if the conversation turns to topics you find difficult.

Loss of control

Having a lot of extra food, perhaps that you normally wouldn’t buy, in the house at Christmas time can feel quite overwhelming. It might be worth talking this through with the people you are with at Christmas to help make it feel less daunting. Having a plan of where food will be in the house or whether things like chocolates will or will not be left out might be helpful.

It might be worth thinking about making a plan around early warning signs for binges, possible triggers and distraction techniques and support you might need if you feel the urge to binge. Planning these things ahead of time and talking it through with your support network could allow you to feel more prepared.

You may also want to think about a meal plan for Christmas Day, as restricting food could also lead to a binge.

Trying to enjoy other aspects of Christmas

Christmas is a really special time for many people, and if you have fond memories of Christmas, feeling like the eating disorder is disrupting that can be really upsetting.

  • Try to think about the things, perhaps not related to food or exercise, that you could still enjoy, such as films, games, or decorating. These are every bit as important as the food, and making the day more about these may make it feel less daunting.
  • It could help to read our information about managing difficult emotions, so that you can make plans for how to take care of yourself depending on how you’re feeling.
  • Think about whether you could start (or whether you already have) a Christmas tradition that isn’t centred around food. This could be volunteering, something involving arts and crafts, a creative game – what talents and abilities could you use in different ways?

Concern about the effect of the eating disorder on other people

People with eating disorders often mention that they feel a sense of guilt around the impact of their eating issues on others, especially at Christmas time. We’ve had positive feedback from families that suggest that doing things differently and promoting ‘connection’, ‘communication’ and ‘enjoyment’ at Christmas (that is not centred around food) has actually improved the experience of the whole family. We would encourage you to see this change in a positive way and try to avoid blaming yourself. It can be so hard when the feeling of guilt is overwhelming. If you are struggling with this feeling, try to reach out for support and talk it through with someone.

Helpline & Support

Our Helpline and online support services will be open 4pm – 8pm from 24 December – 1 January. Please get in touch should you need us.

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Coping with Christmas

Christmas is a difficult time of year for many. This workshop will enable parents, carers, partners, friends and family to enjoy the holiday season with their loved one.

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Solace is for anyone supporting somebody with an eating disorder and gives you the opportunity to share your feelings and get support from others in a similar situation.

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