Talk to someone now. Call our National Helpline on 1800 33 4673. You can also chat online or email

Talk to someone now. Call our National Helpline on 1800 33 4673. You can also chat online or email

Season 1, episode 7

Navigating the festive season

It’s that time of the year again. Meeting family and old friends to celebrate over food and drink. But for many living with eating disorders, the festive season can be a minefield that sparks anxiety whenever we think about it.

The Butterfly Helpline reports a spike in calls from people looking for support at this time. Still, there are ways to navigate the festive season and thrive.

In this episode Sam finds how people in recovery prepare and deal with the all the seasonal triggers. He talks to Nicki Wilson from FEAST, Michelle Sperling, Butterfly’s Manager of Treatment and Support and three people who share their experiences from when they were struggling and how they learned to cope with the increased stress and triggers that can be part of this time of year.

Sam Ikin:

The festive season is here.

 

It’s a time of joy and happiness.

 

Seeing friends and family that we haven’t seen all year, who will no doubt comment on how much we’ve changed physically since we saw them last year.

 

It’s about sharing food and drink and feasting, dressing for summer, spending time by the pool, going to the beach wearing swimmers.

 

WHOA WAIT.

 

For some of us living with eating disorders and body image issues that doesn’t sound like joy or happiness at all. That sounds horrible.

 

No wonder the Butterfly Helpline has a spike in calls around this time every year.

 

But that means that there is help out there and there are some strategies you can put in place that can help you not just get through it, but to really enjoy it.

 

This is The Butterfly Podcast from your friends at Butterfly; Australia’s national voice for eating disorders and body image issues. I’m Sam Ikin and this episode is a festive season survival guide.

 

Nicki Wilson:

It can be just so anxiety provoking.

 

Sarah:

Especially being in Australia it’s a bit of a double whammy and we are wearing less clothes. We’re going to the beach.

 

Dominik:

Every time there’s something. When it comes to food, there’s always someone who talks to you about something food-related where you’re like – you start doubting yourself.

 

TJ:

I know how stressful it can be especially coming from a cultural community where not only is food quite a staple in celebration in events like this, but as well as the conversations around mental health aren’t necessarily as widespread or potentially understood.

 

Sam:

The festive season can be tough for people who are affected by eating disorders or body image issues. To the general population it’s known for an increase in feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression, and all of those are triggers for eating disorders.

 

Nicki:

It’s all that expectation of fun and feasting and socializing. We’re all supposed to love that aren’t we? And those who are struggling with an eating disorder… That’s all the stuff that is just so challenging and that they are fighting to enjoy, but it’s not coming naturally.

 

Sam:

In Australia where the season just happens to be at the height of summer, we tend to focus on going to the beach or hanging out at the pool.

 

Sarah:

We are wearing less clothes, we’re going to the beach, it might be feelings of, thinking about your body in a different way and I guess being hammered with different ads about getting your summer body ready and yeah, it’s a really tricky time of year for people.

 

Sam:

We start to see family members and friends who we haven’t seen all year, who just seemed to always feel it’s necessary to comment on how we look.

 

Dominik:

There’s always inter family stress and there’s relationships that are not necessarily always healthy and there’s other problems that have nothing to do with anything else. You get into a stressful state and you can possibly fall back into old patterns or new patterns depending on where you are.

 

Sam:

And then there’s the massive focus on food and feasting.

 

Nicki:

The festive season comes with a change in routine and this can create anxiety particularly around more times that meals are served. Most people tend to indulge in this time of year and there’s a feeling of pressure to having to do the same. All the food and the expectation that you’re going to be enjoying it.

 

Sam:

If you couldn’t pick the accent Nicki Wilson is from New Zealand. She’s president of the Eating Disorders Association of New Zealand. She works full-time as a volunteer, providing support for carers and advocating for improved eating disorder treatment for both patients and their families.

 

Nicki:

It’s really tricky. Somebody is ill with something else, whether it’s a broken knee or some other physiologically evident illness, it’s that much easier for others to see and so somehow society understands better.

 

Sam:

Nicki’s also the Vice Chair of the international organization known as F.E.A.S.T, which stands for Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment for Eating Disorders.

 

Nicki:

But when it’s an eating disorder, that lack of comprehension of how hard it is for the person themselves; I think can make it more difficult because those around you are perhaps not being as understanding and supportive as they could be. Not through any deliberate act on their part, just truly lack of understanding.

 

Sarah:

If there’s been some weight gain or weight loss, then, that’s often a remark that people will make when they’re connecting with other people.

 

Sam:

Sarah Bryan is a peer ambassador with SANE Australia, and she’s worked with Butterfly on a few campaigns in the past.

 

Sarah:

I have lived experience of an eating disorder and I currently work with people who are recovering from an eating disorder and people that face mental health challenges. This is the time of year where the family gets together and if they haven’t seen each other for a while they might comment on body size or their appearance. It also coincides with the new year period where people talk about their resolutions for the year ahead and I find a lot of people talk about weight loss in that sense, that could be a goal of theirs. Also a lot of comments around at the dinner table about how much food you’re eating and how you’ve been naughty or bad because you’re eating so much food and I think those things can be really triggering for people who are dealing with an eating disorder or are in eating disorder recovery.

 

Dominik:

You completely forget like you’ve carved out your area and your way of eating away from all that stress and as soon as you’re back in the familiar setting, you’re this kid again and you’re doing everything that you used to do and it’s not always good. You have to be really cognizant of not falling back into those patterns. My name is Dominik and I work as a computer nerd and I have lived experience with an eating disorder and feel like I have come out at the other end.

 

Sam:

Dominik’s in recovery and he’s really happy with where he is at the moment and he feels really comfortable in most situations, but even he feels a little bit anxious when he thinks about Christmas and the festive season.

 

Dominik:

Mixed feelings at this point, I guess everyone is different, obviously when it comes to family or old patterns or new patterns and emotional eating and possibly feeling overwhelmed, I’ve moved away from my family, a bunch of kilometers, so I think our relationship is much better for it as well. Obviously, Christmas or the holidays has always been wintry so coming to Australia, this is so much better. I think this is such good improvement to go onto the beach for the holidays and just soak in the sun. To me, that is perfect.

 

Sam:

I’m referring to this period as the festive season, rather than the Christmas season or any other denominational kind of celebration, because a large proportion of Australia’s population don’t celebrate Christmas, but at the same time still observe a celebration and a coming together of family and friends at around the same time. TJ’s family comes from Sri Lanka and they do celebrate Christmas. It’s a really important celebration for his family and you guessed it. It all revolves around food.

 

TJ:

When I first sort of think about this type of period of the year. Christmas time, end of the year. It’s a huge time to celebrate and I think this year, especially lots to, I guess, reflect on, be hopeful for and celebrate. But I know for me and speaking from my experience as well, it’s also been quite a stressful time of the year and even in the lead up to it because that’s kind of what I’m trying to prepare for too.

 

Sam:

When I was doing woodwork at school, there was a massive sign on the workshop wall that said, “An ounce of prevention is better than a ton of cure”. And I’ve heard that applied to many situations and as we approach Christmas experts urge us to put more emphasis on preparation yet again. Michelle Sperling is the Manager of Treatment and Support at Butterfly.

 

Michelle Sperling:

It can be useful to plan about how someone is going to manage prior to attending an event, maybe preparing a list of helpful strategies that they can refer to. We also would recommend for you to let a trusted person or people know how you’re feeling. Tell them the ways that they maybe have to support you leading up to the holiday season and on that particular day. And I think also if you are linked in with a treatment team, staying in contact with your therapist, GP, dietician in the lead up to the holiday season is also important in part of that preparation. Finding out when they will be around over this period and asking them to help out with some supports, if they’re going to be away.

 

Sam:

For Sarah, preparation is also really important and for her setting boundaries is something that she puts really high priority on.

 

Sarah:

If you are going into an event or a lunch or dinner with people who are likely to comment on maybe your body or weight, maybe setting boundaries with them and being assertive. You could say things like, “I know you comment on my weight or my body because you care about me or you think that it’s helpful, but it’s not and I need you to stop.” And this is a way you could sort of be assertive, but also acknowledge that they aren’t trying to hurt you because we know people can get defensive when they’re being told that they’re in the wrong.

 

Sam:

But you’re talking about honesty – being honest.

 

Sarah:

Yeah being honest.

 

Sam:

What? Oh my God! Okay.

 

Sarah:

I know it does sound scary to speak your truth then tell someone, “Hey, this isn’t acceptable”, but we as a society – not just our little groups, our family, our friends – but as a society need to do better and stop talking about bodies because it can be really harmful.

 

Sam:

To say that the festive season can be stressful, is a bit of an understatement really. A recent survey in North America reported 45% of respondents dreaded the festive season. They weren’t just worried about it, they dreaded it. for Dominik, preparing for the season is essential.

 

Dominik:

That comes down to everything about an eating disorder. When is it OK to say no? And when is it OK to say yes to anything food related? And it comes down to you finding a way to listen to your body. It’s finding a way to feel confident around what you’re feeling rather than what you thinking you need and saying, “OK, now I’m hungry I really want to do this.” Or “I am happy to go there because I feel strong enough to say, no, I’m not going to touch this and that and I’ll be focusing on the human interactions rather than on this bloody food.” Yeah it’s really trying to find your confidence and being honest to yourself, really understanding, OK, am I doing this because I feel like I’m going to feel better afterwards – which is, borderline disordered – or is it because it’s the right thing for me to do?

 

Sam:

With a little bit of preparation TJ was able to use the family tradition of storytelling as a way of bringing them with him and turning his family into a big support network.

 

TJ:

A few years into my mental health journey and recovery I think there were many conversations that I was having to, I guess, try and explain what my situation was. Storytelling to me and I think within my culture as well, kind of transcends language barriers. So, for me, I speak English, however, my family speaks Sinhalese and I think sometimes there are messages that are lost in translation. I think stories are able to transcend quite a few language barriers because you’re not necessarily trying to connect on having a specific piece of information. You’re also connected on feelings, which I think are really valuable.

 

Dominik:

Oh absolutely.

 

TJ:

It was a lot of conversations about how I was feeling that kind of led me and my family to the point where we were able to support each other as well.

 

Sam:

It’s really easy to feel as though you’re in this alone. But one thing to remember is that most people in your family are there for you and want the best for you. As a carer and now a support worker for carers, Nicki encourages people to help their family prepare as best they can as well, so that it can be a happy time for everyone.

 

Nicki:

Anybody who has a loved one with an eating disorder can step up and understand they have a role to do in supporting that individual. It’s for them to have as much knowledge as possible about how to support and reaching out and saying, “What can I do to help? I’m here for you”. Being confident and calm and supportive is really important – and anticipation. There will be triggers and being ready for those and being prepared and having a plan. So for instance, knowing that there is going to be a whole lot of food, that that individual might have difficulty eating the Christmas dinner with the entire extended family. Feeling watched and feeling under surveillance, whether or not they are, it is often a feeling and just getting a plan and knowing that somebody’s got your back is something that could be done in preparation.

 

Nicki:

Understanding that the festive season may not be experienced in the same way by all is a good starting point. So we would suggest for them to talk to their loved one about what they might be thinking or feeling or what might be challenging for them and together, collaboratively, try to problem solve and get some practical ways to minimize the distress without avoiding events and creating anxiety. Also sort of resisting making comments in front of others about what your family member was eating, how they appear, as mentioned earlier. Supporting them to have some responses in the box.

 

Sam:

Dominik says he likes to suggest that his family take the emphasis off food, maybe just a little bit.

 

Dominik:

Maybe don’t have it everywhere. It shouldn’t be the center of attention. Maybe find another thing that we can send our attention around. Like maybe we sit around the table that has a chess board on it and we just talk. It’s about talking rather than sitting together and eating. That’s another option.

 

Sam:

We’ve been talking a lot about doing the right thing by yourself and listening to what you need and then responding to that but what if what you need is to stay home and give that Christmas event a miss? Is that something that’s okay? We’re certainly not encouraging people to isolate, especially during this season where feelings of isolation and loneliness are so common.

 

Sarah:

It’s totally okay not to go because that’s something that I definitely battle with myself, but I know that I’m not doing enough to say no. If you feel brave and confident enough to not go, my hat is off to you. We shouldn’t have to do things that we don’t want to do and if you think that going to Christmas lunch or dinner isn’t going to be good for your mental health, then I really respect that and sometimes that can be the best thing to do. Just distance yourself from those events and maybe say, “Look, we’ll catch up after Christmas”.

 

Nicki:

If you couldn’t go because you had a migraine coming on or you couldn’t go because something happened to your child and they were unwell or whatever it may be. That is a reason to not being able to go. I think the important thing is to be upfront about that and excuse yourself and in a timely manner rather than once again going back to the situation where we’re not able to be open. It’s something that we see shouldn’t see as shameful. But rather than that, how about being able to say, “You know what, I’m not going to be able to make it. I wish I could I and I will come if I can, but I don’t think I will be able to make it”. I think that by being upfront, it’s an advantage to everybody involved including that individual who’s making their excuses.

 

Dominik:

There are other alternatives, whether it’s creating a plan around how you might be engaging in a situation, whether it’s totally withdrawing from it in a positive and safe way, or kind of structuring it in a way where you might be able to come along or be a part of, a certain part of the event or the celebration. Or taking some time within that to go for a walk with a friend, or have a conversation on the phone with someone, but in a separate room. I think there are different ways that we might be able to, I guess, respond in those situations in a way that is comfortable and safe for us.

 

Sam:

It’s good to make the point that it’s okay to sit it out as long as you’re not choosing to isolate, which could well be your eating disorder coming into play. So rather than isolate, you might look for a more fun and less stressful alternative preferably with other people who are more supportive.

 

Dominik:

My mental health journey also revolved around really wanting to fit into the spaces that I was in and spaces that necessarily didn’t reflect the person that I was, but I still wanted to fit in. So, I think there are ways to really take stock of that and also acknowledge that everyone’s situation is different and everyone’s relationships with their family and their friends are going to be different as well.

 

TJ:

Like in, in my recovery for the longest time, I just didn’t go to large gatherings of foods just because I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t feel like I can cope with it and now I’m forcing myself into those uncomfortable moments because I know when I get over them, the next time it’ll get easier and the next time it’ll get easier. So, it’s really starting to practice breaking habits and building my strength up. At this point in my recovery I think I’m pretty good with eating and around other people and just being happily very insistent on saying, “Nope, I’m good.”

 

Nicki:

The alternative is to find support and to say “I’d really like to go along to that event, and I don’t want to miss out because I’m worried about others’ reactions and what’s triggering in such circumstances. I’m going to see if I can develop a support structure that enables me to go”. How about that? So, talking to some trusted people and saying, “Hey, this is going to be really hard for me, but I want to be there. And these are some ways that you could assist me. Would you be willing to do that?” And to look for that person, whether it’s your partner or your parent, or your sister or brother or great mate, and being prepared and making a plan.

 

Sam:

The festive season is considered one of the six most stressful life events. It’s right up there with divorce, moving house, changing jobs, and a few others. It’s also a time for giving. So why not give yourself a break and practice a little bit of self-care? If you do have an increase in behaviors during the holidays, it’s not the end of the world. Recovery is a journey. Think about the changes and the progress that you’ve already made. That’s not gone. This is all part of the rise and the fall of the journey to recovery.

 

Michelle:

It’s normal to eat differently at this time of the year. Food is social and celebratory and that is difficult for the people experiencing an eating disorder, but it is important to remember that it is normal to be eating differently. And I guess just one final comment on preparation is to be extra kind to yourself and plan some self-care activities in the lead up to the holiday season. Maybe even think about a nice gift or treat that you could give to yourself.

 

Sarah:

And most importantly, treat yourself with kindness and compassion to know it’s okay to step back and take a break and not engage. I think that’s very valid. So yeah engaging in mindfulness. I don’t know if you’ve got some positive affirmations you might want to say in your head. “I am worthy”. “My value does not lie in my weight or my appearance”. Yeah, I think there are little things that you can do.

 

Nicki:

I really believe that those of us who are in recovery have got a responsibility to be telling the story as it is and getting the message out there one person at a time.

 

Sam:

Over the past 12 months, almost 30,000 contacts have been made to Butterfly’s National Helpline, which provides support over the phone, via email, and through web chat seven days a week. So, for those of us who aren’t around a support network or something to fall back on, remember the Butterfly Helpline is there to help. It’s open seven days a week, except for Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and New Year’s Day. So, if you think you might have to reach out, it’s better to do so sooner rather than later.

 

Nicki:

Please reach out for support, whether it be with a friend, a family member, our National Helpline – because it is fundamental to get that support and not have to feel like you’re going through this alone.

 

Sam:

The number for the national helpline is 1 800 33 4673. Easy way to remember that: 1800 E D HOPE. You can chat online, or you can send an email to support@butterfly.org.au. If you go to the website, butterfly.org.au, there’s heaps of recovery resources, including tip sheets for people with lived experience, as well as friends and carers, which might come in really handy around the festive season. And if you’re looking for the support networks that we were talking about before, have a look at Butterfly’s online support groups, go to the website, click Get Support, and look for Online Support Groups. That could make all the difference for you over the festive season. The butterfly podcast is an Ikin Media Production for the Butterfly Foundation. It’s written, produced, edited, and hosted by Sam Ikin, that’s me, with the assistance of Camila Becket and Belinda Kerslake. Theme music is from Cody Martin and some additional music from Breakmaster Cylinder. Huge heartfelt thanks to our guests, Sarah, Dominik, TJ, Michelle Sperling, and Nicki Wilson. And if you know someone you think might get some value from these podcasts, please share this series with them. It’s available in all the podcast places.

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