Dear Therapist..."Christmas Triggers Old Disordered Eating Patterns"
Christmas has been a difficult time for me since I was 12 years old and developed what I now know is ‘disordered eating.’ Before this time, I loved the carols and lights and gift-giving and all-around magic, but this was largely overtaken by an almost singular focus on food, and how I can control my eating in such an indulgent time.
While things have improved markedly in the decades since, I still notice ‘food anxiety’ starting to creep in from mid-December and am now already planning and strategising how I will deal with both the food, and the food triggers that inevitably accompany returning home for the holidays. Help!
Slave to Food
Dear Slave to Food,
I’m so sorry. The diet culture we all live in has robbed so many people – particularly women – of a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. You sound tired of the amount of time and energy devoted to food, and longing for the ‘magic’ of the holidays that existed in earlier years. A starting place this year might be an intention to regain some of that lost joy – seeking out seasonal music, winter walks, warming fires, twinkling fairy lights and writing heartfelt Christmas cards to loved ones.
Next, please give yourself permission to eat, and regularly. So many people try to manage calories by restricting food intake in the days preceding the ‘feast,’ or skipping breakfast or lunch the morning of. This strategy leads to a sense of deprivation, both physically and psychologically, that often results in overcompensation (hoarding or binge eating) later on. See this for the trap that it is, and allow yourself to honour and feed your natural hunger.
Your letter also mentions the emotional triggers returning home entails, and how food has been a coping strategy in the past. Be sure to plan mini breaks from family, time on your own to regroup and take care of yourself. Being home for the holidays is always an opportunity for ample ‘information gathering’ – we can witness old patterns and how they were formed in the first place. Can you get curious about these? Notice how a query about your dating status from Mum (for example) is a cue to head to the biscuit drawer? What other options might you have in these ‘trigger moments’ to take care of yourself? Commit to pausing, stepping out of autopilot, and giving yourself a moment to ask yourself what you are feeling, and what would help. Recall the times that food has been a ‘false friend,’ allowing you to numb unpleasant emotions in the moment, but ushering in feelings of shame and remorse after. See if there is another choice that might be more genuinely supportive.
Finally, see if you can explore shifting your inner dialogue on food from the stance of Inner Critic to one that is more Inner Coach. The Critic focuses on control, and shaming us into compliance. Eventually, we tend to get so worn down by this voice we resort to some type of numbing activity (comfort eating!) to silence the incessant chatter.
The Coach, by contrast, has our back. Whispers in our ear what we need to hear during difficult times. Dusts us off when we fall, and sends us back into the game. If you find yourself slipping into negative rumination (the Critic’s favourite activity!), ask the Coach to step in and listen for her words of wisdom.
Shifting decades of conditioning from diet culture doesn’t come easily. The Coach knows this, and can remind you not to expect old beliefs and behaviours to change miraculously overnight. Still, a commitment to starting the process of stepping out from punishing ways of relating to food and your body is a wonderful holiday gift to yourself!