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  • Helly Barnes

Christmas in Recovery from an Eating Disorder... Aaarghh!!!

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

This post is written predominantly about Christmas but I am releasing it now because I know many people might be facing Thanksgiving this week and that others will have Hanukah coming up too... Or if you are reading this at other points in the year, perhaps it applies to other celebrations or events that are relevant to you. So, feel free to replace the word Christmas with the event relevant to you as the tips given here can be applied to any celebrations!

If you also want to understand more about why Christmas with an eating disorder is so difficult for people, then please have a read of this post on my Recovering Nomad website that I wrote when I was still in the recovery process.

Top Tips to Cope with Christmas when in Recovery from an Eating Disorder

Before launching into the tips below, just a quick note. I am not going to tell you, as so many nicey feely people might that you should just 'do what you feel you can' this year and 'make Christmas not about the food'.... That advice is well meaning but it's also giving permission to the eating disorder to thrive and that's not the side of recovery I come down on!

If you are reading this then I assume you are in recovery or want to be, which means pushing into things that might feel hard (and then finding they are not as hard as your brain told you they would be) and recovery is most definitely about food and eating. So I say, make this Christmas about food, rest and doing things that scare you but that will ultimately liberate you!

With that being said, here are some ways to make this Christmas a recovery positive one:

  • Start off by visualising the future you want that is free of an eating disorder. This Christmas might feel hard and crappy and you might want all this Christmas ho ho ho-ness to be long gone. But your future can be so different and so much better if you keep going into recovery right now. So, really imagine yourself in a year or two years from now, recovered and free. What is your life like? Who is there? What are you doing? How are you feeling? Make that image real and positive and use it as motivation now to push yourself into all the things that you can do to make that future yours, by eating and resting from this moment (which includes this Christmas!).

  • Make an absolute decision that you will eat BIG (by big I mean non stop wherever possible), rest BIG (again non stop, not going on that 'walk' or 'being helpful in the kitchen') and find all the ways you can to have FUN. When you are absolutely decided and committed that that is what you are going to do, no matter what, then the anxiety will reduce as anxiety frequently comes from the mental gymnastics you keep engaging in over 'will I eat this, when will I fit in my movement, how can I make sure I don't eat 'too much'? blah blah blah. Don't engage in the mind games. Be determined that you are going to do Christmas in as big a way as you can and do it. Don't think about tomorrow or next week... you can work all that out when you get there. Just be determined that right now, you are doing Christmas properly!

  • When the inevitable emotions come up over 'facing another Christmas or new year still being sick', allow yourself to feel it, cry if you need to and then decide that yes, you have had a raw deal of life but you are able to change that and then get on with enjoying the food and rest today (see previous point!).

  • Use any pain that surfaces as a result of reflecting on your past or from frustration that another year has gone by and you still have an active eating disorder as motivation to make your life different, starting NOW.

  • Expect that emotions, whether in relation to Christmas or other things, might well be stirred up when you do eat and rest more. Recovery action will sooner or later lead to feeling things that you usually numb with the eating disorder behaviours. So if you do start to experience a range of difficult emotions bubbling to the surface, let yourself feel them. Cry and begin to actually process through them, rather than blocking them again by restriction or exercise. The good news is that as you keep going, not only do you experience the less positive emotions again but you also experience REAL positive emotions and genuine laughter again too.

  • Decide who you want to spend Christmas with and what situations you will gain most pleasure, support and good times from. For some that might be with your nearest and dearest, aiming to eat and rest more than any of them and enjoying being part of your family unit and the celebrations. For others it might be being with a friend or other support person who is happy to spend the time with you or invite you into their festivities. And for some of you it might be spending the time on your own but giving yourself the green light to let all the eating disordered routines and habits go and allow yourself to buy as many good festive foods as you can find and eat the lot of them while you cuddle up on a couch with rubbish Christmas films or a good book.

  • If you do have trauma from your past related to your family or even to past Christmases, then do what you need to do around this. This might mean avoiding situations or people, especially if you do have genuine past trauma and have not worked through this with a professional yet. Please note though that with this point, I am talking to people with genuine past trauma, not to those people who just want to avoid situations to make the eating disorder happy!

  • Alcohol... often a big feature at Christmas and this is something you have to know what is true for you. Some people with eating disorders find a glass of wine or similar can help them lower their inhibitions and anxieties around eating and relax a bit more, so if it helps on this occasion then why not? A lot of people have fear of liquid calories and that includes alcohol so they 'don't drink' and if that's you but deep down you really want to join others in a drink, then this is the time to do so. After all, you are committed to letting any mind games or restriction go, so I think you know that you need to have a glass of something! For others though, it might be that you have a history of using alcohol instead of eating or a history of alcoholism or only allowing yourself to eat when you have had a drink first and that's when you really need to know yourself and do what is right for you.

  • Family and 'those comments'. Yes, if you spend the day with great Aunty Ethel and that 2nd cousin who is into fitness and whatever the latest diet craze is, then you might be faced with a day (or a couple of days) of diet talk or comments on your eating or weight. That is life. It is shit when you are trying to recover from an eating disorder but some people will never understand and all we can do is accept that they are going to say or do what they are going to say or do and it might be insensitive or make your eating disordered brain go a bit crazy but this is where practising the feck it mindset comes in. And for eating disorder recovery to progress and last, you need that feck it mindset to be a strong feature for you! So, if comments come that 'aren't you looking well', or 'have you gained weight?', you can either ignore them and not reply or reply with something sassy like, 'yep, I have gained weight and I plan to gain a lot more because the eating disorder I have had for the past x years nearly killed me and I think that allowing my body to be healthy and at a happy weight is preferable, don't you?'... Or if that gym crazed second cousin does decide that she is going to talk about her diet or how many workouts she has done before breakfast, face up to her and keep putting roast potatoes and mince pies in your mouth! I think we all know she's hungry and miserable with her lifestyle so will probably be very envious of your new found ability to eat and relax!

  • Don't be the martyr!! Most people with eating disorders at Christmas can use the martyr card as a way to let the eating disorder get its way and look like they are being selfless when they do. Let's face it anyone who has not had an eating disorder just doesn't realise that these 'helpful' things you are doing are all part of your illness. By this I mean, always being the one to prepare (control) the food, being the one to take plates in and out and wash up (excuses to be away from pressure to eat the food and to keep standing and moving), volunteering to take the dog for a walk or to play with any children who might be there (those pesky exercise compulsions) or even aside from family events, volunteering to work that day in your paid job or a voluntary role (I did that for a few years with the eating disorder as it meant I could stay in my safe feeling disordered bubble of routine and eating my same restricted foods. It was miserable). Notice when you are doing things to be 'helpful' that are actually all part of the illness wanting the upper hand and instead, decide this year to be what might feel selfish to you in the moment but will be the most selfless thing you can do and that is let others do all the preparations and running about and you sit, eat, sit, eat oh and sit and eat some more. Do that this year and let recovery happen for you in the coming 12 months and next Christmas could look and feel very different for you, your family and mean that you might really be able to give back in a meaningful way.

  • If you are not in recovery yet, use this Christmas period as an ideal time, not to put off recovery because Christmas is 'too stressful and pressured' which your ED brain will I am sure be telling you, but actually to kick start your recovery in a real and meaningful way. A heck of a lot of people without eating disorders spend Christmas in the very manner that you need to for recovery i.e. eating a lot and resting, watching TV etc.. Surely therefore, this is an ideal time for you to get in the groove of recovery action and make it your new normal until you are recovered and done!

  • If you are 'in recovery' but still not really committed to eating unrestrictedly (perhaps you are still eating to a meal plan or routine and still won't let yourself go above this because it's already 'more than you were eating')... then use this Christmas as the perfect time to finally break all that ongoing restriction and anxiety over changing your eating routines and do it. You won't ever fully recover until you do, no matter how much more food your planned approach is to what you were eating before.

  • If you are 'in recovery' but still going for those compulsive walks or even still doing some formal exercise or still standing when you should be sitting, even if it's less movement than you were doing or you are telling yourself it's ok because you are eating more... Use this Christmas to sit the feck down and break all those ongoing compulsions because you won't recover until you do and what better time to start!

  • CHOOSE to be positive about the food and what you are eating and choose to be positive about resting so it will aid your rewiring process in your recovery (please have a read of an earlier post on how positivity supports rewiring by clicking here).

  • In addition to making this Christmas about the food and resting and deciding to be positive about both those things, really take the other good things that you like about Christmas and let yourself enjoy them. Whether that's the lights, the music, soaking up the Christmas spirit from others or some old childhood traditions you might have. Let yourself engage in them and enjoy.

  • When it comes to food at Christmas, can you remember childhood favourites you had at Christmas time each year that you have perhaps avoided since the eating disorder struck? Time to bring those childhood favourites back, no matter how silly they might seem and enjoy them!

  • Money.... Another big thing for many with eating disorders while still in that scarcity mindset created from a history of restriction and ongoing energy deficit, is finding it very hard to spend money. This Christmas, aim to beat this. Spend on others, spend on yourself, buy foods that your brain might be saying are 'too much' when it comes to cost and let yourself be less of a scrooge this year. Now, I know there is also a cost of living crisis in a lot of the world right now and I am not telling you to spend more than you can actually afford but I am saying, be very very honest about what you can afford, then set yourself a minimum amount you will spend this year on food and then another amount on gifts for others and for yourself and make sure you spend every last penny to prove to your brain that the anxiety over doing so is not grounded.

  • Notice any resistance that comes up to whatever it is. It might be a social engagement, eating more food, sitting down, spending a bit more dosh... As soon as you notice your brain saying, 'perhaps just do this for now..', or 'that's not a good idea because of this very convincing BS reason I am about to give you...', notice that resistance in your thoughts and do the opposite to what it's saying. When you notice the resistance with that anxiety starting to rise, where you might be feeling a bit shaky, wanting to move about more, feeling irritable, feeling your heart quicken or whatever other symptoms you get, then stop, use the tools in my post on managing a fear response and then proceed with whatever it is that created this resistance in a calmer way or even with a bit more excitement at doing so!

  • And with that, you can also choose to see this Christmas, not as something to fear and get worked up about in a huge ball of anxiety, but as something to be excited about! There is no reason at all you can't be excited about Christmas this year. You are a free person.... You are allowed to eat all you want this year, whenever you want, with no rules about any of it and you are allowed to rest and relax. That's quite exciting if you allow it to be!

  • Fears of weight gain? Yep, they are going to come aren't they. All those thoughts that 'everyone knows that everyone gains weight over Christmas' and comments at the table that 'I am going to have to be good after all this!'. You know the fear of weight gain will be there because you have an eating disorder. You know you will be hypersensitive to the throw away comments about diets after Christmas because you have an eating disorder. And that eating disorder is the very reason you have to keep eating, keep resting and get recovered, even if that does mean weight gain for you... This is when you choose to actively pursue weight gain and embrace it and not let those fears of gaining weight derail you because when you do gain a bit of weight and your life is 100 times better, you really will wonder what you were ever scared of.

  • Curiosity is a great tool in recovery. Adopt a curious mindset as a means to make those big changes with your eating and not engaging in disordered behaviours... Say to yourself, 'I wonder how this year might be different if I did just dive into all the food and Christmas experiences?'.... The only way to find out is to do it and see!

  • Find out just how much people do want to support you. As stated earlier in this post, it might be that as you eat more, rest more and allow yourself to push against the eating disorder that difficult emotions come through or you might just need some reassurance and support if your brain really does start to kick back. This is when you need to use people for support because there are people out there who can and will support you if you let them. It might be family or friends you seek support from, a coach, a professional or perhaps a helpline. Use people for support and use people to share and celebrate your inevitable recovery wins with to!!!

  • When it comes to seeking support though, don't expect others to always say and do the right thing, even if you have asked them for that support or tried to 'educate them' about your recovery process. People without eating disorders will never really get it because unless you have been there you can't and no one is a mind reader. Nobody can know what the very thing is that you need them to say at that moment in time. So, don't get mad at them for not always getting their support right as ultimately, this is YOUR recovery, not theirs, not anyone else's and it is your job to take control of your recovery and OWN IT. I strongly believe that recovery doesn't happen until the person in recovery starts to take ownership of those decisions of what they will do for their recovery freedom and put in the action no matter what, not always having to rely on others to tell them. Therefore, take ownership right now of that decision that you will eat your way to recovery this Christmas and into your full free and fabulous future life, despite what others say or think and then do it... (but still use support for that hug, some cheerleading and a bit of reassurance from time to time!).

  • And... ultimately, remind yourself that in recovery you should be eating, resting and living like many people do on Christmas day anyway, Therefore, leading up to the Christmas period, practice each and every day how you want to be eating and resting when it does come so that when it does, your brain sees eating a lot of food and relaxing as just something that you do and that's actually ok. After all, in recovery it's what you need to do every day until you are recovered; not just at Christmas!

Before I fully conclude this post, I also want to add a serious point. I absolutely know that Christmas time or other big events in the year that serve as annual markers can be hard when you have an eating disorder and can make depression symptoms worse for some. Therefore, if you are struggling with low mood, suicidal thoughts or don't feel safe or stable in other ways then please seek support immediately. Use your GP, emergency services or other health professionals; talk to a family member, friends, a coach or call a helpline that is available in your country but whatever you do, please don't suffer in isolation.

Finally then, I hope there is something in this post on tips to manage Christmas when you are in recovery from an eating disorder that will help you and that you do have a very good time this year, determined to make this season different because I am very confident that you can.

**This post is a transcript of a podcast episode on my series,

'Feck it, Fun, Fabulous and Free in Eating Disorder Recovery',

which you can access for free here, on YouTube or wherever you usually listen to podcasts!**


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