An anorexia survivor has urged people struggling with eating disorders this Christmas to ‘be kind to yourselves’ as she shared advice for the festive season.
More than 1.6 million people in the UK are living with anorexia, bulimia or another eating disorder, and Christmas can be a particularly difficult time as there is so much focus on food and spending time with family.
Anorexia survivor Laura Campbell, 28, spoke to Metro.co.uk about how those struggling can cope at this time – and how others can support them.
‘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,’ said the Londoner.
‘Food is everywhere, on TV, on the radio, on every advert board and is the topic of many conversations.
‘For those with eating disorders, who use food as an emotional crutch or 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.’
Laura, who works in science communication and innovation, said she used to translate the comments from family members of ‘you look well’ as ‘you look fat’, and found she was comparing herself to others.
‘I found the nostalgic memories and the wistful desire to be young again, and the worries about the future when thinking about New Year resolutions, provoked disordered 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 eating disorder.’
The former marathon runner turned yoga teacher has offered some advice for those nervous about the upcoming festivities.
‘Recognise it’s normal to have a celebration meal on Christmas Day,’ she said.
‘Focus on the people and the occasion and treat it as any other roast dinner.
‘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.’
She added getting enough sleep and avoiding alcohol can help people cope with tough feelings.
‘Be kind to yourself – prescribe yourself some alone mindful time like 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,’ she said.
‘Don’t let the Grinch ruin your celebrations’
Laura advised people should try not to compare themselves to others: ‘There will always be people richer or poorer, fatter or thinner, happier or sadder, older or younger than you.
‘Try to focus on the positives in your life. And do not let the Grinch of eating disorders ruin your celebrations.’
Although 1.6 million people have been diagnosed with eating disorders in Britain, there are likely to be hundreds of thousands more who are undiagnosed.
They do not discriminate by gender – it is estimated a quarter of those affected are men.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate among psychiatric disorders, with anorexia nervosa having the highest rate affecting young adults.
Campaigner and anorexia survivor Hope Virgo, who speaks to young people and employers about mental health, said: ‘Christmas is an extremely challenging time for people with eating disorders, from this focus on food, to the lack of routine, to families getting together.
‘For people with eating disorders it also feels like this marker every year, everyone watching to see how you are coping. I have had my fair share of bad Christmases where things haven’t worked out, or a plan hasn’t been kept.
‘But over time I have learnt how to manage these. I can no go in to this period confidently setting my boundaries and feeling able to assert myself where necessary.
‘We need to ensure that throughout this period that people with eating disorders and their feelings are being taken seriously.’
The 30-year-old, who regularly speaks out about her experiences with eating disorders, called on the Government earlier this year to rethink plans to put calorie counts on restaurant menus.
Laura also offered advice for those looking after friends or relatives with eating disorders.
‘Do not ban all Christmas food from the house or force it on someone either,’ she said.
‘Make food a pleasure not a punishment, and encourage sitting round a table and making food a sociable seasonal enjoyment.
‘Try to help manage the emotions under the eating disorder with love and support, and realise that eating disorder recovery – and remission – is a process.’
Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya, consultant psychiatrist in the NHS and clinical lead at The Soke private mental health clinic in London, said: ‘The Christmas mantra “eat, drink and be merry” may roll easily off the tongue for many, but can be triggering for those with eating disorders.
‘Being around family members over the festive period may generate critical comments from family members, lead to greater scrutiny – over how much and how quickly food is consumed – at meal times and challenge the need for control that lies at the heart of many eating disorders.’
If you suspect you, a family member or friend has an eating disorder, contact Beat on 0808 801 0677 or at [email protected], for information and advice on the best way to get appropriate treatment
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