Whilst Christmas is generally a wonderful time with lots to look forward to, for someone with an eating disorder this time of year can present significant challenges. The holiday season means that many of us get some time off work (thank goodness) bringing us out of our regular routine. Christmas parties galore, family gatherings and meeting your mates at the pub can mean greater opportunities for indulgence, which can be challenging for those in recovery from an eating disorder. As we come into summer in Australia (la Nina, back off), the change in season brings with it new clothing and time spent at the beach, which can be challenging if you’re struggling with body image concerns. There are also lots of big expectations around what the silly season can offer… but the reality is for many of us extra time at social gatherings can mean navigating tension and conflict, or we’re reminded of the special people who can’t make it this year, have moved away, or aren’t with us anymore. So, if you’re recovering from an eating disorder (or supporting a loved one who is) here are a few tips that might help coming into Christmas.

Plan ahead!

  • Work with your treating team to plan ahead to ensure that you’re able to eat regular meals across the Christmas period that are adequate and able to satisfy your individual needs. Think as well about how to navigate finger food and dessert options that might be presented to you.
  • Consider those (particularly long) days between Christmas and New Year. It might help to plan in some family activities you can enjoy outside of meal times, to provide some extra structure and distraction.
  • If you’re a parent or caregiver, be aware your loved one may need extra support with meal preparation, meal support, managing compensatory behaviours, and planning out the remainder of their day.
  • Be aware that often even the most well-intentioned relatives or friends can end up making comments that can be really painful for someone with an eating disorder to hear. This could include the old “you look so healthy” or focus on changing appearance or the amount of food you’re having. I think there are two main ways to handle this: try to prevent the conversation from happening in the first place, and manage your response if it does. You can try from the outset to set a healthy boundary (“I don’t want to have conversations about food, weight and shape today”) and ask for help from your loved ones to enforce this. If it comes up, be prepared to change the subject, or have a pre-planned line at the ready. If you’re feeling extra brave, you could try to educate them on the ramifications of the conversation (e.g., the impact of diet culture on eating disorders) but make sure you feel safe and supported when doing so. Take care to notice what it brings up for the eating disorder and try to challenge or get a bit of distance from any unhelpful thoughts that might come up for you.

When it gets tough, be aware of your triggers and utilise your coping skills

  • Distract yourself – go for a gentle walk, make a Christmas card, watch your favourite movie or TV show, play a game.
  • Self-soothe – find an activity that utilises your five senses to soothe distressing emotions during times of distress. This could include hanging out in nature, listening to some calming music, having a relaxing bath (use that new bath bomb you definitely got as an office Secret Santa present).
  • Be mindfully present – be aware and engage with whatever is going on in the here and now, without judgement.
  • Challenge negative thoughts – what’s the evidence for and against the way I’m thinking? Is there another way to think about this?
  • Or simply defuse from them – can I simply notice my thoughts rather than getting caught up or buying into them? Can I let my thoughts go rather than holding onto them tightly?

Practice self-compassion

  • What can you do right now to take care of yourself?
  • What would you say to a best friend if they were in the same tricky spot, or experiencing similar thoughts and feelings? What tone of voice would you use? How would you acknowledge their suffering, and show them comfort, love, and support?

What do you truly enjoy about Christmas?

  • Spend your time off doing that thing! You want to stay home, relax, and watch Love Actually 1000 times? Great! You really love looking at the Christmas lights? Make time and prioritise doing that, rather than what you feel socially expected to do.

You don’t need to say yes to everything!

  • For some people, over-indulging in silly season drinking and going to every event on offer can activate some big triggers. For others, it can simply be exhausting. Look after yourself and only attend if it’s in your best interest.

New Years resolutions tend to be rubbish. However, reflecting on your year and what you value can be useful.

  • New Years resolutions tend to be devised in all or nothing or black and white terms: “I will stop eating X” or “I’ll do Y amount of exercise. They tend to become inflexible, unhelpful rules that can fuel eating disorder anxiety and guilt.
  • What can be a useful practice towards the end of the year (or any time you like) is reflecting on your personal core values. Values guide us towards being the person we want to be and doing what matters. Values aren’t about what you want to achieve. They’re about how you want to continue each and every day to treat yourself, others, and the world around you.

Ensure you have the appropriate support

  • Schedule regular appointments with any of your health professionals who are not on leave over the holiday break. Consider seeing an alternate GP at your usual medical practice if your regular GP is away.
  • There are online chat services available:
  • And crisis support services:
    • Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
    • Lifeline: 131 114 
    • Emergency services 000
    • Mental Health line: 1800 011 511
  • Reach out to family and friends and let them know you might need some extra support. For some, this time of year can be a difficult and painful reminder that we might not have the best support system in place. However, it might also present an important opportunity to genuinely connect with someone new.

Good luck – and Merry Christmas!

Cover Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash