“Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year,” as the well know song goes. Or is it? For many people it is a hugely stressful time even in the best of years. This can be even more so for people struggling with their mental health, especially those who struggle with eating disorders. Often there’s an expectation that everything will be perfect, and that all the problems we struggle with during the rest of the year will magically disappear. This can be so overwhelming that it can ultimately make Christmas a daunting and stressful time of year. This month on Irish Online Counselling, we’re going to share some tips on how to survive the holidays when struggling with an eating disorder
Living with an eating disorder is already hard, but it can become much more difficult during the festive period when indulgence is most encouraged in society. There is a large focus around food, and it can be hard work to try and cope your thoughts around this time.
Those who struggle with eating disorders (ED) like anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder (BED) and other specified feeding or eating disorders (OFSED) can often notice an increase in their unhealthy coping behaviours such as restricting food intake, binges, purging and increased exercise, to deal with the difficult thoughts and emotions that arise.
My name is Niamh, I am one of the therapists with Irish Online Counselling. I am very grateful to have fully recovered from Anorexia Nervosa, so I wanted to write this blog to help others, both from my perspective as a CBT therapist and as someone with lived experience.
Here are some tips on how to survive the holiday season with an eating disorder:
Eating disorders are often very secretive. This works to serve the eating disorder –it leads to feeling lonely, isolated, and sometimes becoming defensive with family and friends. That may result in using ED behaviours or rituals to cope, which will just reinforce the eating disorder mindset.
One of the biggest factors in my recovery was being open with my family and friends -Telling them when I was struggling and what would make it easier. Even little things, like knowing what time the meal was at and having options to serve myself made me feel less anxious.
Another big trigger for me were people’s comments, even something like “You are looking well” could trigger and send me spiralling. Although these comments came from good intentions, when I was in recovery, I couldn’t recognise that. I managed to ask my close family members and friends to refrain from making comments on how I looked or what I was eating and to communicate to others that it wasn’t helpful.
Food and drink are a big part of Christmas, but they are not the only elements. What else can you do to take the focus away?
- Talking with family or friends – which now has been made more accessible through social media and video calls.
- Spending time with pets can also be hugely helpful. Or going for a family walk or playing games together. I found having an activity to look forward to after the meal was a good way to take some of my anxiety off the food. I remember during the first years of my recovery we would play card games for money; a bit of competition made it more interesting!
Maybe plan in advance with those who you are spending time with what could be arranged – even creating a list of films, tv shows or music might be a good start!
3.) “Not everything we think is true” – challenge those negative thoughts!
Despite what the ED voice might say – you won’t lose control. When I was ill, I remember feeling terrified about the possibility of losing control – or having control taken away from me. This was completely unfounded and in fact it was the ED that made me powerless. I was unable to enjoy the simple pleasures at Christmas, everything had to be accounted for.
Now I am recovered I have realised that the idea of ‘control’ is a way for the eating disorder to manipulate you. There is absolutely no evidence saying you will gain weight or binge after eating something you enjoy. The ED voice will try to convince you otherwise but believe me you won’t remember how many calories you consumed or how much exercise you did on that Christmas in 5 years’ time, but you will remember the memories that you created.
The more you entertain the ED voice, the more you maintain it.
4.) Be kind to yourself.
You are allowed and deserve to enjoy yourself even if you are struggling with an ED during the holiday season. I feared for so long that I was ‘ruining’ Christmas for everyone by being so caught up in the ED, however when I look back on it now, it was the ED that ruined it for me.
I had been criticizing myself for years, but in recovery I tried accepting myself and things started to look different.
Prioritize your own self-care during this time. Set your own expectations, and if you need to take time away then do that. Stick with the positive coping methods you have already established. For example, use music, mindfulness, grounding techniques, or anything that helps you come back into the present moment.
Remember that it’s okay to be unhappy or anxious on Christmas. Don’t let the obligation to be happy derail your progress.
5.) Get support.
Things may be difficult, and it’s okay to struggle, but you are not alone. It’s okay to ask someone around for support or reach out to a helpline. There will be mental health charities that will be providing support during this period. Maybe book in for a session with a counsellor soon after Christmas, sometimes knowing that you have a space protected to process it all afterwards, can help you get through it at the time.
6.) Have Fun
Finally, don’t forget to have fun! Talk, laugh and joke with your family and friends. Be present (and enjoy opening the presents!) Sing and dance to the Christmas music! Watch your favourite movie again (and again). Years on in recovery, I have realised that it’s the memories that count, not the calories.
If you would like to book in a session with Niamh, please visit:
For more information on where to get support visit: