Coping at Christmas whilst in recovery from an eating disorder

If you are reading this in the lead up to Christmas, we would like to take a moment to recognise the strength and bravery it requires to be in recovery from an eating disorder at Christmas.

For many, Christmas is a cheerful period; an opportunity to come together and celebrate with gifts, food and games. However, for someone with an eating disorder, Christmas brings with it a significant amount of pressure – to join in, eat food that may cause fear and anxiety, and sit with the anxiety that can arise during moments of extended down time.

Whilst fears and anxieties at Christmas are not exclusive to people with eating disorders – many people can struggle with Christmas! – it is important to find your personal sense of grounding during this time.

To support you with this, we have collated some tips for coping with Christmas…

Coping with food and the feeling of overwhelm

The food aspect of Christmas is often the one that many people find the most difficult. Mealtimes can be hosted in a buffet style, making portioning incredibly challenging and anxiety-provoking. What is more, meals and snacks often include food that causes fear and overwhelm – perhaps including food you have not eaten in a long while.

If this is the case for you, take a big, deep breath and recognise how positive it is that you are seeking guidance for this aspect of Christmas. It is a huge testament to how you are putting your recovery first.

Our tips:

  1. Plan ahead, and do so with the support of loved ones – bravely voice what your triggers may be and, if needed, suggest small adjustments to the host that may help you to feel more comfortable. It is ok to state your needs to others and receive support in getting them met
  2. Sit next to someone who is supportive – having someone nearby that you can squeeze if things begin to get challenging can help keep you grounded and in the present. Sometimes just knowing that someone is there beside you is enough
  3. Have an escape plan or grounding activities at hand – have a safe space that you can return to for reflection and peace. You could even create a safe word with a family member so that they know you need a time-out, and know that they will come and check in with you at certain intervals

Asserting boundaries with family members

Boundaries are what we set so that we do not reach our limit. A person with healthy boundaries can say ‘no’ when needed, and will use boundaries to protect themselves emotionally, physically and energetically. Whilst many confuse boundaries with being ‘selfish’, they are actually what ensures that we do not ‘pour from an empty cup’. It is important to have some boundaries it is not selfish, its self-interest.

Boundaries are important at Christmas as it is a time when extended family members come together, and there is the risk of (often well-meaning) comments from people triggering unhelpful thoughts and feelings. Boundaries can help navigate this experience – forming a protective ‘distance’ between you and the difficult comments and feelings that can arise.

Our tips:

  1. Allow yourself to tune into your feelings in the present
  2. Notice whether what you are feeling is being caused by something in the present
  3. If so, bravely name your boundaries by starting small, being direct and polite. Keep in mind that you are helping them to help you. It is not selfish nor aggressive
  4. Know that they may not understand at first, but that is ok. Reach out for support and guidance from a trusted loved one if necessary
  5. Remember its ok to take time out from people over Christmas. We often expect ourselves to spend extensive amounts of time with others when it’s something we may not ordinarily do

Coping with unstructured down time

People in recovery can often struggle during periods of extended down time. Often, it feels safer to stay busy and active and in a state of hyper-vigilance, in order to prevent overwhelming emotions or critical thoughts from arising. If this is your experience, know that it is ok. It is simply a part of you that is trying really hard to protect you and keep you feeling safe.

Our tips:

  1. Have a list of absorbing activities at hand that you can do in moments of downtime – this might include a colouring book, paint by numbers, a jigsaw puzzle and doing something routine like lingering over self-care activities. The state of ‘flow’ appears when we are we are busy and absorbed in an activity, without really ‘doing’ anything
  2. Go through the process of R.A.I.N (Recognise, Acknowledge, Investigate, Nourish). This is a mindfulness exercise developed by Tara Brach and allows you to Recognise the emotions that you’re feeling in the presence, Acknowledge them without judgement (aka not trying to conduct a story around them), Investigate them by gently noticing what the emotion feels like, and finally, Nourish yourself by responding to what you discover with something compassionate

Coping with feeling like you are missing out

We have so much compassion for those of you who feel a degree of guilt or shame for not being able to ‘join in’ yet. Let us take a moment to recognise the bravery and courage it takes to be in recovery from an eating disorder and give kindness to the parts of you that want to be further on in recovery than you currently are.

Change does not happen overnight, and in recovery there will be ups and downs. If at any point you feel a sadness for not feeling able to do something, put your hand over your heart and gently whisper “I am on a journey. I am meant to be where I am right now. That is ok.”

Feeling restless in recovery is also great motivation for keeping going and developing new goals.

A final word…

Go gently this Christmas. If things get hard, that is ok. It does not mean that you are ‘failing’ or going backwards. Those moments that feel particularly difficult are often rich with wisdom for learning more about yourself and your needs. Honour the information that you receive this Christmas and know that you can always reach out for support.


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