Christmas, Thanksgiving, Diwali, Hanukah, and other big celebrations are highly triggering times for food extremists. They are times of everyone coming together, of fun and commotion and excitement and a time of heightened emotions. They are centred around big meals, food and feelings. You have the big build-up to the big mass cultural over-eat at the celebration and then the subsequent post festivity universal diet and post-party nothingness. Food is everywhere, on TV, on the radio, on every advert board and is the topic of many conversations. So for those with eating disorders, food extremists who use food as an emotional crutch, a maladaptive coping mechanism for dealing with positive and negative emotions, it is a highly unstable time, one that often triggers lapses and relapses to disordered behaviour.
If we use Christmas as an example of this, the feast of Christmas with huge focus on food followed by the famine of New Year can be a confusing paradox, destabilising meal routines. Whether you have had an eating disorder or mental illness, or not, Christmas is one big stressful frenzy of emotion. You have the positive emotions evoked by the warm Christmas music, the re-connecting with old friends and family, the nostalgia, the gift buying and receiving, the romance, the glitter, the hope, the Christmas lights, the delish food, the time off and the time for remembering positive memories and coming together with those you love. With the busy sociability of friend and family gatherings, office parties, schools broken up and people off work and in turn not much time alone and nostalgia for previous years, it is an injection of sentimentality. Then you have the negative emotions; the loneliness if you are alone, the grief of missing those you have lost, the memories of Christmases gone by and the missing younger versions of yourself. You have also the pressure to make it perfect, the financial worry and stress, the planning and organisation, the family politics to manoeuvre and the questions, the comparisons to others, the stress of a change of routine and lack of structured time, the regrets and resentments and self-judgement at failed resolutions at New Years and the “suddenly nothing” void in January. If you don’t have family, have lost a job or made mistakes, suffer financial hardship or grief from a lost one or broken relationship, it can also be a huge reminder of what you are missing. Add to this a lot of mood-altering sugary food and sugar highs and lows, a lack of sleep from the change of routine and alcohol and unfamiliar beds (if you visit family), and a lot of alcohol which accentuates emotional states, and you have a recipe for food extremism.
I adore Christmas. I always have. I love the glitter, the lights, the music, the excitement and the games, gift exchanges, carol concerts, cosy snowy nights, Christmas fairs and markets, seeing people I love, good tv and delicious food. I love everything about Christmas and look forward to it every year, advent calendar at the ready. However I have also had anorexia (so severely it nearly killed me seven times) and binge eating disorder and with time I have noticed circular patterns. My anorexia was linked to anxiety and Christmas was a very triggering time. In the build up to Christmas, with all the anxious excitement, joy and planning, the busy diary, the change to routine, the people, the memories, the chaos and the mental build up to the “big meals,” I found myself becoming more controlled with food, eating less “to save for Christmas dinners,” and losing weight and then spending a lot of Christmas having big family rows and feeling negatively judged, as I was “too thin.” Then after Christmas, when all the fun noise, planning and stress over, the worries that come with going back to work and new years resolutions, the dark gloomy weather and seasonal affective disorder and the onset of January blues, I would binge eat and feel such guilt at not being able “to eat like this with family” and get really low. I did the reverse of what everyone else did, eating more after Christmas. It was subconscious, and I didn’t even mean it to happen, but it happened.
There were certain things that I found highly triggering about big celebrations for my eating disorder. The fact food is everywhere, on tv and the radio and in every advert and we are positively encouraged to binge eat (hard if like me you had binge episodes in your anorexia). I found the “you look well” comments from family that I hadn’t seen in years, which I heard as “you look fat,” the personal, judgemental and invasive questions about my life (encouraging self-reflection and self-judgement) and the news about what everyone else was doing, and the feelings that comparing myself to others evoked, highly triggering. I found the feelings that missing ex-boyfriends, friends or family members that had passed away, the nostalgic memories and the wistful desire to be young again and the worries about the future that new years resolutions reflections, provoked extremist behaviour. The “food everywhere” feast at Christmas and then the “empty shelves and post-Christmas workout plans” famine in the new year, positively encouraged my inner food extremist.
With time, to disarm the food extremist, I developed skilful tactics. Mainly these involved being self-aware and creating, and sticking to a strong meal plan, treating food like my medicine and taking my prescriptions. Not going over or under this meal plan. I developed “Christmas rules” for you or anyone you know who is a food extremist.
- Meal plan: Eat 3 meals a day and 3 snacks. Work Christmas treats into this meal plan. Make for example, your snack a mince pie. Don’t under or over eat pre or post Christmas. Try to stay balanced.
- Recognise it is normal to have a big meal on Christmas day. Don’t compensate for this before or after. One meal won’t make you obese and depriving yourself things or skipping meals after, will make you crave what you restricted, hungry and more likely to binge later. Use mindful exercise to celebrate life and reduce anxiety, not purge calories from yourself.
- Try to get as much sleep as possible to help you manage extreme emotions that will inevitably arrive. Watch caffeine levels (which will stop you sleeping and make you anxious) and alcohol (alcohol reduces sleep and accentuates emotions and so if you are feeling sad it makes you sadder. It is a depressive).
- Be kind to yourself- prescribe yourself some alone mindful time (walks, yoga or just quiet mindful present wrapping) so you can hear yourself think and reduce anxiety. Listen to calm music as well as upbeat Christmas songs.
- Don’t get too busy. Don’t overdo social events if they compromise your mental health. Don’t use “I don’t have time” as an excuse to under eat in the build up to Christmas or “I have so much free time as I have no money to do anything as I spent it all at Christmas and only have work to do” in the new year as an excuse to over eat and binge.
- Recognise it is normal to feel deep emotions at Christmas, to miss loved ones you have lost and to feel nostalgic. Don’t feed feelings. Try to focus on the current Christmas and not to long for the past. Live for what today has on offer, not what yesterday has taken away. Focus on the present mindfully and enjoy what you have, not what you feel is missing. Remember regrets are futile, they change nothing. You did the best you could with the information you had at a time. Learn and move on. Journal emotions and let yourself feel how you feel without negative self-judgement.
- Try not to compare yourself to others. There will always be people richer/poorer, fatter/thinner, happier/sadder, older/younger than you (unless you become the oldest person on earth). Try to focus on the positives in your life. Content not compare.
- If you feel low, don’t avoid social events either or you will accentuate these feelings. Make sure you always go to an event with someone you trust, who you can fall back on. Take some “safe foods” to events if you are worried about what will be served to ensure you eat enough to manage energy and emotional levels. If someone comments on your weight, eat them. Play “comment tennis” at gatherings. Direct comments that feel invasive, back to the person that asked them. The “so how is your love life?” reply with “fantastic, how is yours?” and send the question back. People love to talk about themselves, so listen to others if you don’t want to talk about yourself. Recognise that people will only tell you the positive summary and so take everything said with a pinch of salt. If you have to sum up a year, you are going to mention the highs and big moments. Try not to self-judge too harshly.
- Try not to do anything over Christmas that will make things harder in the new year. Don’t go into debt showing the people you love how much you love them. If money is tight, try to make the best with what you have. Some of my favourite Christmas gifts are homemade.
- Remember you don’t have to eat to impress or please anyone. You eat your meal plan and your prescription and then you stop. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. Recognise that this is a very stressful time and do the best you can. If you fuck-up, try again. Each mistake is just AFGO (another fucking growth opportunity)!!!
Overall? Try to enjoy Christmas and don’t put too much pressure on yourself to make it perfect. It will be what it will be. Don’t let the Grinch of food extremism ruin your celebrations. If you are a carer of someone with an eating disorder, do not ban all Christmas food from the house or force it on someone either. Make food a pleasure not a punishment and encourage sitting round a table and making food a sociable seasonal enjoyment. Try to help the food extremist manage the emotions under the disorder with love and support and realise that eating disorder recovery (and remission) is a process and that whilst you are breathing there is more right with you than wrong. Focus on the positives and enjoy spending time together. After all, Christmas is about people, not just food and have a very merry Christmas and a happy (or just ok- no pressure for happiness- its ok to be sad if you are grieving for example) New Year!
MERRY CHRISTMAS FOOD EXTREMISTS!!
COPYRIGHT LAURA CAMPBELL 09/12/2020