Tips for the holiday season from Butterfly experts and lived experience voices
The festive season can be particularly tricky to navigate for those experiencing eating disorders, body image concerns, or those who are in their recovery journey. From a focus on feasting, to increased socialisation, to regular support services not being available, this time of year may bring up anxious thoughts and feelings. It’s important to not only stay on track with your recovery, but also to be kind to yourself during the holiday period.
We asked Butterfly experts and members of our Lived Experience Network, the Butterfly Collective, for their advice and tips on navigating the holiday season.
Take the focus off food
Whilst there is a significant focus on food at Christmas time, it can be helpful to shift this focus and reflect on even one thing that you are grateful or even proud of. Considering all the challenges of the year that has been, being able to spend time with loved ones is something to celebrate. Eating disorders often put a negative light on so many things and enjoy sabotaging positive events and occasions. So, instead, make this time less about the food and more about the things that you appreciate, that bring you joy.
But at the same time… normalise fullness
Food is social and celebratory and that is difficult for people experiencing an eating disorder, but it is important to remember that it is normal to be eating differently during this time.
“Contrary to what diet culture has us believe, feeling full is not a sign of failure. Fullness, especially after a big holiday meal or event, is entirely normal and expected. I know it can send you into a big panic spiral, but being full after a meal doesn’t mean you’re suddenly going to gain weight. Remember that eating simply for pleasure is 100% okay. So, if you want an extra bite of a super tasty Christmas food but know you’ll probably be full afterwards, you have my full and unconditional permission to go ahead and have that bite.” – Sophie, Butterfly Collective member, NSW
Write a plan for how you’re going to tackle the big social days and events, if possible with your therapist before they take any holiday breaks, or in a journal with support from your loved ones.
Include a list of common eating disorder thoughts and feelings that may come up for you, and a list of helpful recovery thoughts to counteract each one. Also remind yourself of the reasons you decided to recover and how life is going to be for you when you’re recovered, also acknowledging that the holiday period may be very challenging and that’s ok and normal.
It can also be helpful to list down some relaxation strategies you can implement on the run, like breathing in a deep breath and slowing releasing the breath over 10 counts, or tensing up your muscles progressively and then actively letting them go. Butterfly’s Help Hub also has a number of helpful strategies for managing stressful periods.
“I found it helpful to draw out the holiday period on a page so I could visualise how many days there were and maybe even structure morning, afternoon, evening each day with time for rest, selfcare and meals.”
-Nadia, Butterfly Collective member, QLD
If possible, also have a plan for the days that follow Christmas. It’s important to remember that often people experiencing eating disorders prepare and get through Christmas day quite well and it’s the days shortly after where emotional fatigue may set in with a strong and intense eating disorder voice. Sometimes the time between Christmas and New Year seems to last forever and involves so much food and drink.
You may want to plan activities that the whole family can enjoy which don’t revolve around food. Once Christmas day is over there is so many things to do; cinema, theatre, shopping, activity days out and unique holiday events. Again, try to keep mealtimes as normal as possible and then put the food away.
Lean on your loved ones for support
Before Christmas day, let your family know this will be a potentially difficult time for you. If possible, have a trusted person on hand that you can debrief with following any triggering or uncomfortable feelings. Let them know of scenarios, situations or comments that might be tough, and share with them how you plan to manage and how they can support you.
You might like to devise a hand signal or gesture that indicates you’re struggling and need to step away and take a breather outside.
“I found it helpful to identify which support and needs my professional team provides and find other family or friends who collectively can support you in different ways. Let them know it might be a hard time for you and what your aims are over the period.” – Nadia
Set boundaries and share information
Set boundaries with the people attending your event; make a blanket rule against anyone commenting on appearance, body size/shape, and weight. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this yourself, have a loved one do it for you. If these topics come up, it’s okay to kindly but assertively let the individual know that talking about these topics is harmful, unproductive and isn’t welcome at the table/on the day – or ever.
Another tip is to share information about eating disorders with your extended family/friends if they will be coming into contact with the individual experiencing an eating disorder. This can avoid unhelpful comments and break down stereotypes surrounding eating disorders.
“Don’t comment on how much, how little or what type of food anyone is eating at social gatherings. You might think that you are “complimenting” someone by mentioning how strong they are for showing restraint and avoiding the dessert buffet, or by saying how good they look after losing some weight. However, the person you are talking to might be restricting their diet and not fueling themselves enough, so your comments might exacerbate their perceptions of negative body image, and disordered eating and exercise behaviours. Mention that you like their shoes instead and avoid any comments related to food, exercise and weight.”
-Breanne, Carer, VIC
Be prepared for insensitive comments
Part of recovery is learning to deal with people who may say unhelpful things or not be aware that what they are doing or saying can have a negative impact.
Particularly after the past two years, where we may not have seen family or friends due to lockdown, individuals with eating disorders may have to handle comments about how their body has changed. This can be incredibly triggering and even comments like “you look so healthy now!”, although well-intended, can bring up a lot of uncomfortable feelings. It’s important to remember that the best way to comment on someone’s weight or appearance is to not, even if the comment is positive.
Perhaps you and your loved ones can role play and prepare for these circumstances and any unhelpful or triggering comments/questions that arise, so you know how to divert the conversation. Some useful strategies to divert attention away from the insensitive comment/action might include:
- Change the subject
- Tell a funny joke
- Blow loudly on a party blower
- Have a code (e.g. a loud cough) and free pass to walk away
- Leave the room
- Think up some useful phrases (for you or your loved one to say) and practice saying them beforehand:
- “We agreed not to make comments about food today.”
- “We agreed that we wouldn’t be talking about weight, shape or appearance”
- “Could we change the subject?”
- “It isn’t helpful to me when people talk about food, weight or shape.”
- “I would prefer it if we could talk about something else.”
Strive to separate the eating disorder from your loved one
Remember that if your loved one does find it extremely hard during social events, not to personalise their behaviour and remember that it’s the eating disorder which is influencing their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
Encourage your loved one to try to step out of their comfort zone, in any small way, as this is a victory against the eating disorder. Be accepting that your loved one may not be able to participate in celebrations in the way you were hoping. This is related to the eating disorder, and not to your loved one trying to ‘get out of it’.
“Don’t restrict or compensate for holiday meals.
I know it can be really tempting, especially if you’re new to eating disorder recovery, but try to not restrict before big ‘occasion’ meals or compensate for them afterwards. These patterns only serve to reinforce your eating disorder thoughts and behaviours, so try to avoid them if you can.” – Sophie
Be kind to yourself!
Celebrate that you’ve made it through another year and remember to be kind to yourself and your body during this period; plan some extra self-care activities in the lead up to the holiday season. Know that it’s also normal to eat differently at this time of the year, and Christmas is just one day that will pass like any other.
Support services available during the holiday season
Butterfly National Helpline
Butterfly’s Helpline will be closed 25, 26, 27, 28th December 2021, and 1st and 3rd January 2022. Outside of these dates, our counsellors are available to discuss eating disorders and body image concerns, 8am-midnight, AEDT, 7 days a week. Call 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673), via webchat or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For crisis support and suicide prevention, call 13 11 14. You can also chat online, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In an emergency, call 000.
Suicide Call Back Service
Call 1300 659 467
For young people aged 5-25 years, Kids Helpline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 1800 55 1800
QLife provides Australia-wide anonymous, LGBTI peer support and referral for people wanting to talk about a range of issues including sexuality, identity, gender, bodies, feelings or relationships. 3pm-midnight, 7 days a week. Call 1800 184 527
Other resources to help
- Chat to KIT: For questions relating to eating disorder, body image, or self-help skills you can implement, Butterfly’s Chatbot KIT is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- Butterfly’s Help Hub has a number of articles, resources and worksheets that can help you manage stressful periods while also dealing with an eating disorder or body image concern.
- Let’s Talk Podcast: Hear how people in recovery navigate the holiday season and deal with triggering thoughts and comments.
- NEDC’s e-Bulletin “Finding Help”
- Eating Disorders Victoria’s “maintaining recovery during the festive season” blog contains a number of helpful tips, podcasts, meditation and yoga, and other self-help resources.
- BEAT UK have a number of helpful resources and blogs relating to the festive season.
Want to share your lived experience insights into eating disorders and body image concerns?
Join Butterfly’s Lived Experience Network, Butterfly Collective, and help shape Butterfly’s advocacy, work and programs with your insights. People with lived experience of eating disorders or body image concerns can join, as well as their carers and loved ones.