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Advice for people with eating disorders, and their loved ones, this Christmas

Some people start to deny themselves food in the weeks leading up to Christmas, while others binge eat.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/Pixel-Shot

CHRISTMAS CAN BE a difficult time for people who have eating disorders.

Indeed, 2020 has been a difficult period in general.

This year has had some parallels with the festive season – for many people it involved time off work, or working from home; being around family more; and a lack of structure.

The uncertainty and anxiety of the Covid-19 pandemic had a negative impact on many people’s lives, particularly people who were already struggling with a mental health issue or eating disorder.

There was an increase in the number of people seeking help or information from Bodywhys, the national voluntary organisation supporting people affected by eating disorders, in 2020.

There was a 110% increase in the number of people engaging with online support groups this year, for example.

Bodywhys_COVID-POSTER_PROOF (1) Source: Bodywhys

Bodywhys received 1,240 emails seeking support from March to October 2019. In the same period this year, the group received 1,460 support emails – an 18% increase.

From April to October 2019, there were 274 calls to its helpline, and 406 calls in the same period in 2020 – a 48% increase.

People who get in touch with Bodywhys are often seeking advice about anorexia, bulimia or binge eating. 

A lot of focus is placed on food in the run-up to and during Christmas. Some people start to deny themselves food in the weeks leading up to Christmas, while others binge eat. 

Barry Murphy, who works with Bodywhys, said people need to be particularly supportive of loved ones who have eating disorders at this time of year.

“People with eating disorders have a dysfunctional relationship with food. Therefore they can’t relax around it in the same way as the rest of the population who don’t have an eating disorder would tend to do.

“They can’t have a more flexible or more straightforward relationship with food, they’re looking at it through different perspective, which is through the perspective of illness.”

As well as the anxiety and desire for control that many people with eating disorders feel, the pandemic has caused “a lot more uncertainty” and “put a very different lens on Christmas this year”, Murphy told TheJournal.ie.

“That uncertainty will certainly be front and centre in the minds of people with eating disorders in the weeks and months ahead.”

Advice

In terms of Christmas advice for people who have an eating disorder, Murphy encouraged them to try to identify their “primary stressors” in advance.

“What are the things you’ve experienced stress over around Christmas in the past that might come up again? Put in place things that might just make them less intense.

“When Christmas starts coming around, have a little bit of a plan but try to keep it flexible too.

“That’s really important, but it is something people with eating disorders struggle with because the black-and-white thinking can be quite dominant.”

Murphy said people should set some boundaries for themselves in terms of what they’re comfortable with in relation to food, something their loved ones should respect.

He urged people to have support networks in place over the Christmas season, if they can – such as an online or phone session with a therapist, or a friend or family member they can talk to.

“If you’re in touch with any support structures and tools, have those in your back pocket and use them to manage Christmas stress.

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“Certainly, if you’re linked in with your family, you need to try and communicate that you would like some input into how the Christmas is set up for your family, even the daily routine, just to give you that structure.”

Murphy said “open communication” within a family is vital and encouraged relatives to “be aware of the needs of the person with an eating disorder” and be supportive.

If someone, inadvertently or otherwise, comments on the food the person is eating or not eating, it may help the person to have a prepared response that’s “not defensive”, he advised.

“So, if you do get those offhand comments from other family members who might not be aware of what’s going on, you can be in a position to respond to something that might be difficult or upsetting.”

Murphy said part of the difficulty with an eating disorder is that it “has a purpose for the person, or purposes plural”.

“So, it’s not going to switch itself off over Christmas. And I think families need to be aware of that too. A person with an eating disorder, their relationship with food isn’t suddenly going to normalise because of a family dinner or that kind of thing.

As difficult as it is for everyone, both the person and the family too, just say ‘Okay, this is their coping mechanism at that time, it’s not up to me to try and up end it’.

“Because recovery is a very slow burn process, it does take time. It depends on how the person is thinking, their own view of the control is part of that as well.”

Murphy said early research, as well as anecdotal evidence shared with Bodywhys, would suggest that many people’s eating disorders have worsened during the pandemic. 

“People have described the intensification of the overall eating disorder experience.”

Murphy noted that, “early on in the pandemic” there was a lot of talk about fitness regimes, diets and so-called “self-improvement” – which had a negative effect on how some people view themselves.

Murphy said there seems to be an increase in binge eating and “emotional overeating” during the pandemic. He noted that the fact people can’t “go out to socially eat” leads to more eating alone, and this can have implications for people who are living with eating disorders.

Need support? Call 01 210 7906 (Christmas helpline hours can be read here) or email alex@bodywhys.ie. More information is available here.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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