Christmas, with its focus on family, food and disruption of everyday routine can be a particularly stressful time of the year if you are suffering from poor mental health. So much of what is wonderful about this time of year gets lost to managing the gnawing anxiety and depression that the holidays can trigger. If Christmas becomes a holiday that you are simply just trying to survive then something isn’t working for you! The most important thing to remember is that regardless of anything else, you are fighting for your life and while things might feel increasingly overwhelming during this time of year, your recovery is the most important thing worth fighting for.
TIPS FOR LOOKING AFTER YOUR MENTAL HEALTH THIS CHRISTMAS
- So many people get drawn into a ‘fight or flight’ pattern over the holidays and it’s important to pre-empt this by taking a step back and considering what YOU need. Planning can take an awful lot of pressure off and managing your own expectations about what you think you should be able to deal with and instead consider what might be more realistic challenges for you.
- Build in periods of time where you can be by yourself if necessary, and let whoever is hosting know that you may do this if you need to. Try to find a balance with your daily routine and what is expected of you at Christmas. If you usually meditate in the morning before breakfast then do so, if you usually go for a walk in the afternoon then make sure you do so. If you try to change your whole routine you could start to feel overwhelmed and anxious.
- Review some past Christmases to remember what works well for you and what doesn’t and aim to include more of what you have previously enjoyed about this time of year.
- Looking at the total of the holidays can be overwhelming. Don’t stress yourself out by trying to plan the perfect festive season. Yes, it is good to get some dates in the diary with friends and family but this can become overwhelming. Take one day at a time. You could even break the day down into morning, afternoon and evening and decide what you would like to achieve in each section of the day
- Know who from your support network will be available as during the festive period, they may have their own plans. This will help you to feel more comfortable reaching out, rather than worrying about disturbing anybody.
- Only attend what you can handle. Politely decline invitations if you feel the situation would make you uncomfortable or overwhelmed. It is perfectly okay to say ‘no’- you don’t even have to give a reason if you don’t want to. Instead, you might like to suggest arranging something together at a time and in a situation where there will be less pressure.
- Be in control of when you arrive and leave if this helps you feel safe. For example, if you are visiting friends or relatives decide ahead of time that you won’t drink alcohol in order to be able to drive there and leave when it suits you.
- Practice mindfulness as much as possible – whether this is mindful eating, taking some time to breathe or get outside in nature. This will help you to stay grounded and will help you connect with your body, what you’re feeling and what you need. In response act according to your body’s needs whether that be time alone, food, sleep, relaxation and so on.
- Consider staying off social media for the duration. It can make it seem as though everyone else is having a ‘perfect’ Christmas, whereas the reality of this doesn’t exist!
- Don’t forget to journal. The act of writing your thoughts down during or at the end of the day can give a sense of release as well as slowing down the process of your thinking. This may help you to cope with your feelings and anxieties over the festive period.
- Making a gratitude list can help you to focus on something positive when surrounded by challenging triggers.
- Christmas traditions may take on a whole new meaning when you are in recovery. It is an opportunity to shift the focus from food and family to perhaps considering activities that cultivate gratitude and hope; making homemade gifts, donating clothing or your time to homeless shelters, carolling or spending time in the outdoors. This is a time for you to explore and perhaps initiate new traditions that will support your recovery year upon year. How would you like Christmas to look?
- Remember that presents are a token of appreciation and they don’t need to be big or expensive. The quality of your relationship does not rest on the value of the gifts you give and receive.
- Give yourself the gift of acceptance – you are enough as you are.
- Allow yourself to experience whatever feelings come up for you during this period and let go of any pressure or expectation to feel ‘happy’.
Tips For Eating Disorder Recovery At Christmas
Eating and drinking at Christmas
- Adapt your meal plan to include festive foods, rather than only your usual foods. Find out what will be cooked and roughy when in advance. Allow time to talk over the plan with your therapist/nutritionist. Share this plan with someone you trust who will be with you over Christmas so they can help you, and others, stick to it. Be proud that you have been so well prepared!
- Use mental rehearsal, thinking about the different meal and snack options that will be on offer and visualising portion sizes in your mind. This preparation will help you to make recovery-focused choices.
- Be open and honest to whoever is cooking what you feel up for eating. You do not need to prove anything to anyone on Christmas day and overeating or eating something that feels too frightening can backfire.
- If you are worried about eating at different times to usual, remember that you can have a snack or a bigger breakfast to help keep you going. Do not arrive at the dinner table too hungry or feeling faint or hangry – this will only increase your chances of binging or not enjoying a special time with family and friends. Consider viewing the less predictable meal structure at Christmas as practice for your future life as an intuitive and “normal” eater.
- Don’t restrict meals to enjoy chocolates, cakes, mince pies, chocolate log or alcohol, or restrict breakfast to enjoy Christmas lunch. You need the nourishment of your meals to keep your blood sugars nice & balanced and to give you energy. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up for a potential binge.
- Don’t be tempted to fuel up on booze. Be moderate and eat first as alcohol can often let your guard down. If you know that too much alcohol will lead to a binge or unsafe behaviour, decide whether you really want to drink and if so, how much you will set your limit at.
- If you have enjoyed a nice amount of delicious food and drink on Christmas day – do not respond by thinking you should restrict the next day or week. Eat as well as you can every day you are on holiday to prevent binges or other unhelpful behaviours.
Conversations at Christmas
- Anticipate toxic conversations arising or potential comments on your food plan, eating habits or body, and have a strategy to change the topic (have some conversations changers ready) or plan to remove yourself to compose yourself and allow the subject matter to pass. Think of a response that doesn’t sound defensive but that you feel safe saying. Something like “In order for me to feel less stressed at the moment, it is important for me to be able to manage things at my own pace”.
- People often talk a lot about food at Christmas and overeat. Remember that talking about food is common on Christmas Day and any comments are not necessarily aimed at you. And if they are, then be prepared by reminding yourself that some comments are well-meaning. Compliments on health and looking better are just this… compliments. Particularly in the early stages of recovery, the eating disorder is not healed enough to accept comments with the gesture intended.
- Some people, particularly older generations can lack some of the sensitivity required but are just trying to be kind, honest and sincere. If you can, confide in someone who can give others a heads up before the festivities begin about how you are feeling and what might be triggering.
- One of our favourite tricks for managing tricky or challenging comments from friends or family is to imagine that you are surrounded by a bubble of love. Although these comments might go on, see them bouncing right off you, unable to penetrate your little love bubble. Do your best not to engage in unhelpful chat and be mindful that your eating disorder will try to use scenarios like this to attack and criticise you… see it coming, stay cosy in your bubble and it will pass.
Try to enjoy yourself
Christmas is a time to be surrounded by those who love and care for you. Try and accept that people are with you for that very reason, and your mental illness does not have to be the sole focus of your day. Overall, try to relax and go with the flow, have some fun, and arm yourself with a Christmas mantra, “let it go, let it go, let it go”.
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