Our calendar is speckled with milestones throughout the year that involve celebration. For many of us celebration involves coming together and enjoying traditional food in a social, and festive setting.
These events can be particularly triggering for someone suffering with an eating disorder. Food and the prospect of being around family members can be immensely panic-inducing, and we can feel a lot of guilt and shame associated with how difficult we may find these experiences.
Christmas is an event that gets a lot of attention when it comes to having an eating disorder, but so is Easter. Whilst it might not go on for so many days, it still presents multiple challenges to individuals suffering or in recovery from an eating disorder.
Food and downtime
Food is one such trigger during Easter. Chocolate is an inescapable focal point with supermarket aisles lined with every single type of egg you can imagine. The holiday also comes at the end of Lent, which is characterised by a prolonged period of abstinence. As such, the emphasis on “going big” with food and celebrating together is ever more accentuated.
People with eating disorders, whether it’s anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder – or any other eating disorder diagnosis – can struggle in the face of such attention on food, not the mention the significant pressure to enjoy it in a social setting around people who might be very concerned about us.
Chocolate itself is a common ‘fear food’. Someone suffering with an eating disorder may fear eating it due to a very real and often panic-inducing concern about how much weight they could gain. Another person might fear the possibility of bingeing on it. Studies show that chocolate can interact with neurotransmitter systems including serotonin, a hormone that stabilises our mood and brings about feelings of wellbeing and happiness. Because of this serotonin lift, chocolate is a common binge food. What often underlies a craving to binge is a keen desire or need to self-soothe when experiencing a difficult, dark time.
The numerous bank holidays during Easter can also present a challenge to someone with an eating disorder. The prolonged down time associated with the holiday can be very hard to navigate, particularly if you find a sense of safety and security in keeping active or busy.
The social aspect of Easter is another obstacle. Pressure to ‘join in’ can bring about significant feelings of guilt and shame associated with the fact that we’re struggling. We may also feel incredibly self-conscious at the table knowing that people around us might be monitoring our food intake.
Before we go on, let’s take a moment to recognise just how many aspects of this holiday can be challenging. All of the above is a lot to navigate by yourself, so take a moment to recognise the courage is takes to be in recovery and the resilience you demonstrate by showing up nonetheless.
How to cope with triggers
1) Plan, plan, plan and keep communicating
Take a moment to consider what you might find challenging over the Easter period and make a plan for how you might respond to those challenges in the moment. Be really honest with yourself – what are you not ready for?
It can also be extremely helpful to lean on someone close to you who you can trust and share these challenges with them. Whether these people are on WhatsApp or literally at the table, perhaps they can be your “SOS” person and can give you a virtual/literal squeeze. If someone knows you are struggling, they won’t be taken off-guard if you come to them in the midst of panic.
2) Create a list of things to do to self-soothe
Self-soothing is the process of climbing down the ladder of fight or flight when we’re in a situation that feels threatening. If you feel panic bubbling under the surface, you might want to pause and track the five senses, asking yourself: what can I see in front of me? What can I smell? What can I feel with my touch? What can I hear? What can I taste?
Really focus on these senses. Some people prefer to focus on one sense in particular, for instance, looking around the room and finding all the blue-coloured or textured things in front of them. Other ways to self-soothe include playing with a fiddle-toy, journaling, meditating or listening to music or a podcast, and breathwork. Find whatever works for you and stick with it.
3) Have a safe space to return to
Know that you are allowed to remove yourself from any situation that feels too much. Find somewhere in the house that you can go to for a bit of privacy to collect yourself and breathe.
You are not a ‘failure’ for needing a time-out. Rather, it is a real demonstration of your ability to clock your needs and respond to them in the moment.
4) Observe the cravings
If you suffer with binge eating disorder or bulimia and are worried about bingeing, make a mental note to observe and reflect on this experience.
Often at the root of a craving is an impulse to self-soothe and if we don’t know what we need in those moments, we can look to food as an immediate respite. In those moments when you feel a crave coming on, ask yourself: what do I really need right now? What am I actually craving?
It’s important to try not to restrict your food intake in order to compensate for any food eaten at Easter, as this will likely just increase the impulse to binge. Remember that it is normal to eat more on some days than others.
5) Know that you will be ok
One difficult moment doesn’t have to define your day. We can start over as many times as we need. Shifting our perspective into one of kindness and compassion in the midst of challenge can be incredibly helpful. If you experience a slip-up, reframe your perspective to view it as a “lapse” or wobble, rather than a “relapse”.
It’s important to practice daily self-care around Easter, and remind yourself that you are human and you are doing the best you can. At the end of the day, that is all that matters.