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Post Festivity Eating Disorder Stress
For those of you in recovery: You’ve survived the gauntlet of the holidays. Well done. I used to notice that it was actually in early Jan after the festivities that I felt at my most vulnerable. The holidays are exhausting if you have an eating disorder. One often cannot express the pressure and stress one feels during the holidays — it’s not really the done thing to lose your shit at your poor unsuspecting mother-in-law just because she offered you a slice of Christmas Pudding, is it?
So we tend to bottle things up in order not to look like nutcases. If you have an eating disorder, and especially if you are used to “functioning” with one, you are probably a pro at suppressing stress.
I used to stifle my way through the holidays in survival mode, then fall apart — alone — sometime mid-January. The festive season used to be an onslaught of some form of stress. If I went out to parties and family gatherings there was the fear-of-food stress. If I stayed at home alone there was the (darker) loneliness and depression stress.
Participate or not participate: either way would be crappy.
Then, when things died down, and everyone else went back to “normal life” I would sink into a different sort of despair. The prospect of another 12 months of eating disorder hell loomed. The loneliness engulfed. The devastating idea that this was going to be my life and there was nothing I could do about it. The exhaustion of the holidays left me even less resourced to fight my eating disorder’s whim.
Oh, and not to mention the stupid New Year’s Resolution diet and exercise talk that you know you are supposed to ignore but it drives you crazy anyway!
Shitty as that all may be, it was this sort of despair that one year I was able to use to help me begin to turn things around. Rather than being a victim I decided to be my own heroine. You can use this time to your advantage if you use it as motivation never to feel like this again.
How to repurpose post-holiday stress:
Recognize the problem(s)
Stop saying “I’m alright,” if you are not alright. That’s not helping you or your family or your treatment team. I’m the queen of saying “I’m fine,” when I am not fine at all. It’s rather like a default response that is designed by ED to sabotage you by not allowing other people to help.
Stiff upper lip and all that is not going to get you to full recovery. In order to get out of the habit of the regular “I’m fine,” stop yourself when you start to respond that way and choose some other words. Preferably some more enlightening words.
Talk to someone
I hate saying this because it is exactly the sort of advice I would have poo-pooed as “bullshit do-gooder’s say” when I was sick. Talking to someone — anyone! — helps. In a way, even talking to the cat helps as when you externalize eating disorder anxieties they sound absurd and it helps you dismiss them.
However good at listening Kitty is, she’s nothing on what a compassionate human being can be. If you are an adult with an eating disorder with a family it is highly likely that your heightened stress levels have gone unnoticed. Don’t assume that because nobody has said anything to you that means that they don’t care or have not noticed. Most likely they are at a loss what to do or say — so throw a dog a bone and help them understand.
If you don’t already have a team — build one!
As an adult with an eating disorder, there is nobody that is going to be an instrumental in your own recovery as you are. You have to advocate for yourself by building a team of people to support you. Going it alone is what your eating disorder wants you to do because it’s harder.
Who and what that team looks like will be dependent on you. Most people I’ve worked with need a doctor or someone who can monitor blood levels etc, a dietician, and a therapist or eating disorder coach — plus an EDCP or support person (preferably who lives with you or is a really close friend). One of these people should act as a project manager and coordinate the whole team. This person is (a mon avis) usually best if it is the EDCP or eating disorder coach.
Recuit peripheral support
You’ve got your core people who are structuring your recovery. Now you need peripheral support. This is support such as online peer support groups ( I have on for you here) and social media groups (such as Beating Eating Disorders). You can learn how others achieved recovery and much more in this sort of online support environment.
Devise a stress reduction strategy
I work for a tech startup. When the shit hits the fan we react by planning and altering whatever we are doing to accommodate and mitigate the problem. A lot of eating disorder recovery is project management. Once you have recognized a problem, you brainstorm (with other people, not just Kitty) how to overcome it.
Do not underestimate just how destructive stress and anxiety can be for a person in recovery from an eating disorder. Because negative energy balance (energy deficit) is comforting to us, we are far more likely to create it via restriction or purging activities when we are stressed out. Don’t get caught out with that old chestnut. Take stress seriously and take active steps to reduce it.
Pivot if you need to
Recovery is not linear and no two people I have worked with are ever exactly the same. Sure, we all share things — such as needing to weight restore in order to regain cognitive functioning and needing to manage anxiety during eating — but there are myriad ways said stress and anxiety express themselves that differ among us.
I tended to become unbearably irritable and my compulsion to exercise excessively would skyrocket in January. Some people develop new anxiety focuses. Some become more rigid in their daily activities. Some find new and sneaky ways to restrict. The point is, that the team have to be vigilant for any behaviors that develop that may turn out to be less than ideal.
Example of checking in and pivoting:
For example: Some sufferers find a short (5-10 min max) walk after eating lowers anxiety. This checks out as far as neuroscientific research is concerned, as it is shown that movement lowers levels of anxiety in the brain. However, for some of us, even a 5 minute walk after a meal can turn into an obsession. (I would know because I could turn a trip to the water cooler at work an obsession)
As an adult in recovery, you have to help your team help you. If your support person/EDCP/recovery coach suggests a short walk after a meal and you do so for a couple of days and then notice that you feel anxious at the thought of not taking that post-meal walk you have to bring that up with your team/support person/recovery coach and say “I don’t think the walk is working as it’s turning into a compulsion.” Then brainstorm how to change things — pronto!
The key to a lot of this, is to be fast to recognize when things are going downhill and take action to change them. Not tomorrow; today.
Happy New Year!