How to help someone with anorexia at Christmas

Christmas time for most is a fun time, filled with indulgence. Starting from the 1st December, people open the first window of their advent calendar, and then the rest of the month is never ending parties; all of which are usually focused around food. Therefore, for someone struggling with an eating disorder, this can be a very stressful time of year.

Eating disorders, such as anorexia, are characterized by the restriction of food and calorific intake. Anorexia often creates a sense of control for the sufferer through this restriction. Therefore, the extra temptations and treats around Christmas time can cause a lot of stress for anyone suffering. Additionally, many people with the disorder avoiding eating with, or in front of others, something that’s hard to dodge when it comes to Christmas dinner or a work Christmas meal.

As expected, such stress and anxiety can cause someone to become more irritable, reserved and emotional. However, there are things that you, as a friend or family member, can do to help someone trying to recover over Christmas time, and can be applied to the rest of the year.

I have put this list together based on my own personal experience with Anorexia, and that I feel have been missed in other online articles. These are some of the things that I found helpful (and those that I found not so helpful) when I was suffering…

(Please note that I am not a trained therapist and it is important to seek professional help if you are majorly concerned about someone’s well-being)

Be patient

This one seems pretty obvious, but often goes out of the window when you’re agitated after the family arguments have begun. As many of us can probably relate to, people get angry when they’ve not had enough to eat. Hence why someone with Anorexia may be very irritable more often than others. With the added stress of Christmas food and people’s concerned stares, this is likely to be ten times worse, so be patient when talking to them and understand that this will be a very stressful time. 

Don’t force them 

This one kind of goes without saying, but people can tend to forget that force-feeding isn’t ok when it comes to people with an eating disorder. Remember that they may have tried their best, and be under a lot of stress, therefore being told that they need to eat more is only going to cause more upset. It’s also important to remember that someone who has restricted their food for a long time will have shrunk their stomach in the process and can’t handle as much as others maybe can, so give them some credit as although you may think what they’ve eat is a small portion, they may be feeling incredibly full and anxious because of it. 

Help them focus on having fun/keep them busy

From my experience, my restricting and calorie counting tended to be more excessive and strict when I was sat doing nothing; I had nothing to take my mind off of food. Keeping busy and taking part in fun activities with friends and family was fantastic in boosting my mood and was one of the main things that helped me fully recover. So try and keep your friend or relative occupied and involved in group activities to give them less chance to focus on food. It helps them see that there are more important and enjoyable things in life and reduces stress.

Don’t draw attention to them or comment on their eating habits in front of others

It’s ok to have a quiet word if you’re concerned, or the person is being extremely restrictive, but don’t point it out in front of the whole family. The last thing that someone who is already anxious about everyone staring at them for how they look, is everyone actually staring at them and worse, all at once. Likewise, if someone else makes a comment, help to defer it away. 

Be there for them 

Someone with Anorexia is likely to be nervous about having to eat in front of others. They are also very likely to feel extreme guilt and upset after eating a lot, as it will be breaking the control they feel they have on their diet. Let them know that you are there to talk to them or listen to how they’re feeling. Otherwise they will sit and focus on it for the rest of the day. The next two points help with explaining what to say. 

Ask them how they are rather than telling them what they need

Nobody likes being told what to do or, furthermore, how they feel. There is no exception when it comes to people with an eating disorder; they are still normal people! So if you want to try and help them through talking, try to avoid telling them that ‘they need to eat more’ or that ‘you need help’. Instead, ask them how they are feeling, and whether they want any help. Tell them that you are not judging them, and that you will be there for them and want to help them get better.

Eat with them

Whilst recovering from my eating disorder it was extremely helpful when trying to eat a normal amount when I eat with others. Eating with others shows you that you’re not eating an excessive amount, despite what your disorder may be telling you. I’m not only talking about the big meals when it comes to this. Often when someone with an eating disorder knows there will be a lot of eating required later, they will cut back what they eat during the day to ‘allow’ for it. So try and help them during the time around planned meals, and let them know that you still need to eat throughout the day; make the time to eat breakfast and lunch with them too.

Rationalize with them

Part of having an eating disorder can often involve having a distorted view on how much you are eating. This means that someone suffering will often view a regular sized portion, or even less, as a lot (much like how they may see their body as being bigger than it actually is). Try and help them to rationalise and understand that this isn’t the case. As earlier mentioned, eating with others can often help with this, when everyone is eating the same amount and the same food. 

Additionally, someone with an eating disorder may be extremely stressed about gaining weight and believe that eating more than their restricted allowance will cause them to do so in a short space of time. Remind them that one day of eating more than usual is not going to cause them to put on any noticeable weight all of a sudden. Although busy Christmas parties may not be the time to bring it up, ask them what would be so bad if they did gain some weight, and help them get to the realisation that they need to.

Although Christmas indulgence can cause a lot of anxiety for someone with Anorexia, it should still be fun. Despite a few wobbles it’s a very sociable time that can really help someone who is willing to recover. At the end of the day, although you want to help, don’t put all of the focus on their disorder, and just lead the way in enjoying yourselves. 

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