For Jewish people living or recovered with an eating disorder, the High Holidays – Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) – with its focus on food can pose a whole set of difficulties. The New Year, traditionally a joyous albeit solemn holiday, is typically celebrated with family, friends and plenty of food. Yom Kippur is a sombre day of reflection and introspection where Jewish people fast to atone for their sins for 25 hours. The day ends with a ‘break-the-fast’ meal spent with family, friends and plenty of food. And whilst the holidays should be a time for celebrating with loved ones, for Jewish people with eating disorders, it can be quite the opposite.
“The significance of these days are often lost when in reality the focus (for me) is how many calories are in that dish, have I got too much/too little on my plate, or do they think I’ve gained/lost weight since the last time they saw me,” says Natalia Sloam, Kooth’s PR/Content Manager, who was diagnosed with anorexia at the age of 19. “I very much look forward to seeing and spending time with my family during Rosh Hashanah but the pressure to eat can be incredibly anxiety provoking.”
So, what can someone dealing or recovered from an eating disorder do to mentally prepare for the upcoming holidays?
Feeling out of control around food or about being in a pressurised situation, may trigger eating disorders thoughts. If possible, try to plan ahead and aim to stick to your regular eating routine. “Try not to let the worry about a big meal impact your eating either side of it – the temptation may be there to skip other meals that day, but it’s still really important to eat regularly,” says Dr. Hannah Wilson, Head of Clinical Governance & Clinical Psychology Lead at Kooth.
“If you’re not the one hosting and feel comfortable, try to find out what’s going to be served,” says Natalia. “Knowing what’s on the menu can really help to reduce anxiety levels.” Dr. Wilson agrees, “This doesn’t mean that you can’t be flexible at all – even the best laid plans can encounter hiccups! – but can reduce some of the decision-making that you have to do in the moment.
Planning ahead is essential for Charlotte Mindel, Research Lead at Kooth, who struggled with an eating disorder for about 15 years, and has been in recovery from bulimia for over 3 years. “Even if I didn’t know exactly what was going to be on offer I would write a loose plan such as “one plateful of food and a portion of dessert,” she says.
If portioning and choosing foods creates a lot of distress for you, Dr. Wilson recommends practicing before the dinner. “Practice portioning any difficult elements of the meal that you don’t feel familiar with in order to give you an idea of what they would look like on a plate before the meal.” Or, if it is a buffet-style meal, Dr. Wilson suggests speaking to someone you trust beforehand and asking them to get you a plate of food that you have agreed upon.
“The best piece of advice my mum ever gave me is that no one is really watching or listening, they’re too engaged with what they’re doing,” says Charlotte. “So make your plan, stick to it, and don’t worry about what anyone else is thinking about what you’re doing – they probably aren’t!”
Although you cannot control your family or their (unintentionally) insensitive comments about your weight or what you have on your plate, you can come prepared. “If your friends and family are aware of your eating difficulties, it might be helpful to ask them in advance not to make any comments about your weight, or what you’re eating,” says Dr. Wilson.
You might find it helpful to let family/friends know what they ‘can’ say too, says Kate Elliott, Assistant Clinical Psychologist at Kooth. “Often there can end up being tension around feeling like nothing can be said surrounding weight/food and friends and family members may feel like they’re walking on eggshells,” she says. “So letting family and friends know that X would be helpful and I don’t mind you asking about these things, may help them feel able to be involved and supportive and less like they will say the wrong thing.” Kate also suggests thinking of some conversation starter games to move the conversation away from food, diet or weights.
Sometimes people don’t realise they are saying unhelpful things and it’s just small talk. “It can be useful to think in advance about how you might respond to comments, both internally and externally,” says Dr. Wilson. Although it can be tricky, try not to get drawn into a lengthy discussion about it; you can acknowledge the comment, then perhaps change the subject, or simply say I’d prefer not to talk about it.”
“I learnt a meditation a few years ago where I imagine putting a shield on which keeps unwanted comments or fears from affecting me too much,” explains Charlotte. ”It’s hard not to get fixated on comments but I find it helpful to remind myself of all the things in my life that bring me joy which have nothing to do with my body or what I eat and remember those things hold very little power over me today.”
Have a good support system in place.
Whether it’s a Kooth therapist, your mum, or a trusted friend, having a good support network can help alleviate any anxiety. “If there is someone amongst your friends/family who is already aware of your eating difficulties, it can be helpful to talk to them in advance, and think together about how they can best support you,” says Dr. Wilson. For Natalia, it’s really helpful to have someone on speed dial in case things get difficult. “My best friend is fully aware of my eating disorder struggles. She helps me to put things in perspective and listens without judgement.”
If you are receiving support for your eating disorder from Kooth or face to face services, it might also be helpful to keep a note somewhere private of things that you find difficult and would like to talk through with them afterwards, says Kate. “Sometimes, this may help to manage any difficult conversations in the moment, if you know you will be able to talk them through with someone supportive later on.”
Try to have realistic expectations about what you can and cannot manage. For example, if abstaining from food and drink on Yom Kippur is likely to be distressing and cause you to slip back into eating disordered habits, then talk to a doctor or therapist before going ahead. It’s also important to remember that you are exempt from fasting if your doctor advises against it.
“I came home from four months away at an inpatient clinic the week before Rosh Hashanah,” says Charlotte. “ I found that year so hard because I was so overwhelmed by the expectations and norms I had always known, and how I fitted this into my recovery. For example, fasting for Yom Kippur felt like it was against what I was trying to do for my recovery, and I ended up relapsing on Yom Kippur that year.”
“Our health is absolutely the most valuable thing we own, and despite expectations and norms the most important thing to do is what is kind and loving for our health. It’s not forever, it’s just for now, and not fasting one year, or not eating dessert one year, or whatever it is that is going to help you is not going to cause harm, it is an act of love towards yourself.”
Be Kind to Yourself.
“Sometimes, we might experience self-criticism and shame if we think that we have eaten too much, or our eating has led to other behaviours that we are not happy with,” explains Dr. Wilson. “It’s important to be able to reflect on our behaviours, but remember that our eating, and our weight, do not dictate our worth as a person.”
Look out for black-or-white thinking. If you eat less than you had hoped or binged/purged, it is not the end of the world. “Having a setback does not mean you are backx to square one! Focussing on the bigger picture in terms of how far you have come and maintaining some perspective will be more helpful that catastrophising,” says Dr. Wilson.
“If I ever did eat a bit too much or different from my plan the key was to be kind to myself and move on rather than dwell on it and use it to beat myself up – remembering I am enough no matter what I eat and the goal is to be loving towards myself,” says Charlotte.
“Take some time before the festival starts to do something you find relaxing,” says Natalia. “I find listening to some music or having a long bath can help to calm any racing thoughts.”
Dr. Wilson recommends creating an ‘emotional first aid list’ that includes different things that you find calming, or soothing, and a plan for what you might do in response to some of the situations or thoughts that you think may arise. Some of these things could be portable, e.g. a relaxing meditation that you could listen to on your phone whilst in the bathroom, or a card with some positive affirmations that you could have in your bag to look at when you need to.
“Sometimes taking time to myself has been a little walk outside away from the busy-ness, at other times it’s been a few deep breaths in the bathroom, but it’s amazing how a few deep breaths alone can make the world of difference when you’re feeling overwhelmed,” says Charlotte.
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