Why Christmas can be so difficult for people with muscle dysmorphia

Why Christmas can be so difficult for people with muscle dysmorphia

Last Christmas, George stood in front of his bedroom mirror, frozen with fear.

Trigger warning: this article contains frank discussion of body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and suicide.

The body he had fueled with protein and pushed to the point of vomiting for years was suddenly unrecognisable. It was like his biceps, his six-pack and his whole self-worth had melted to jelly.

Along with most people in the country, lockdown was a dark and lonely time for George.

He found himself down a path he thought he left behind at uni; the days when he would rather stay hidden in his room, scrolling through fitness Instagram accounts, than go drinking with his mates. Days when building muscle and counting macro nutrients were his only measure of existence.

That second lockdown though, with the closure of gyms and time away from loved ones, caused George to reach breaking point.

As staff at No 10 allegedly laughed over port and Stilton, he lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling. It was suffocating.

In the next few days, George planned to take his own life, exactly how and where he would do it. He’d even practiced. Thankfully, something stopped him and George reached out for help.

Muscle dysmorphia (MD) is a sub-type of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), where the person is preoccupied with not being muscular or lean enough.

Dr Rob Wilson, CBT therapist and chair of the BDD Foundation, says that BDD is underrecognised and MD even more so by the medical community.

‘People including clinicians tend to associate body image problems with underweight women, not people with large muscles,’ he tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Working out, gaining muscle and losing body fat are generally perceived as healthy, which means the illness is concealed in MD patients.’

Not all weight lifters and Peloton lovers will be suffering. But Dr Wilson points out that body-building can become detrimental when it takes over a person’s life. Studies show those with BDD related conditions, including MD, are 45 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population.

After suffering a spinal injury at the age of 14, George was told by doctors he could not play sport for nine months. The time of inactivity triggered depression and when he was able to exercise again, he became fixated.

The compliments from friends and family about his physique egged him on to train harder, work out for longer, and lift heavier. If George missed a day, he would feel intense guilt, sometimes even making himself sick or exercising extra hard to the point of fainting.

‘For me it wasn’t about losing weight, it was about proving my masculinity,’ George tells us. ‘My dad was a rugby player and he was always covered in bruises and scars. It taught my teenage self that pain and resilience were things that made you a man.’

Like George, Hannah, who was diagnosed with atypical anorexia at 15, used exercise as a crutch. She figured that if she started power lifting, she would have to eat more. However being skinny soon spiraled into a new and equally toxic ideal: the perfect, toned physique.

‘I wish this was an exaggeration but I was checking my reflection nearly 200 times a day at one point,’ she says. ‘It was so weird. Some days, I looked and thought “wow my abs are defined”. The next day I checked and it was like I had ballooned into the Michelin man.’

Even without Covid restrictions, Christmas can be a triggering time for people with eating disorders and body image issues. This is due to a combination of glorified indulgence, bigger portions, less control, increased scrutiny at events and more photo opportunities.

The BDD Foundation said they often see a spike in views to their website during the festive period, with last year’s visits particularly high. Between December 2020 and January 2021, Beat also delivered one and a half times more support sessions to people with eating disorders and BDD, compared with the same time period the previous year.

Growing up, Hannah saw Christmas as a balancing act. Her training regime was suddenly rocked, as friends and family invited her to Christmas drinks. At the peak of her illness, she would cancel or decline every social event, so as not to miss a workout.

When her mum would bake Christmas treats, the spiced scent of gingerbread and mince pies failed to whet her appetite.

‘I literally thought if I had one treat, I would reverse my entire progress,’ she explains.

Cooking the meal herself was the only way she could navigate the dreaded Christmas dinner. It meant complete control over the food, the quantity and how everything was cooked.

But figuring out a menu that would stick to all her rules was a challenge that often left her overwhelmed.

‘I remember going to the supermarket one Christmas to buy the stuff and I stood in the aisle for about an hour, because it was too much,’ Hannah tells us.

Despite a house full of laughter and Michael Bublé, Hannah could not silence the voices in her head on Christmas day. As soon as she’d swallowed her last mouthful, she was thinking about exercise. The traditional Christmas walk turned from a time for catching up with family, to an antidote for burning off her nut roast.

Unlike Hannah, George says he has never really struggled with indulgence. He had always been used to ‘bulking up’, so a turkey dinner, smothered in tangy cranberry sauce, and finished off with a rich yule log was no problem.

For him, January has tended to be more of a challenging month, as fitness gurus cash in on the post-Christmas guilt.

Suzanne Samaker, a mental health campaigner, says enhanced before and after shots on New Year workout ads are particularly harmful. She is lobbying the government to make it law for all digitally edited images to be labeled.

With the latest guidelines on socialising and working from home, George worries that he will have reduced distractions again during this festive period. However, he says he is in a much better place than last year and is putting his energy into his mental health organisation, MyoMinds.

Hannah, meanwhile, is focused on her podcast all about eating disorders, called Full Of Beans.

As the NHS postpones appointments and waiting lists grow ever longer due to the target for 1,000,000 Covid booster jabs a day, this year it may be harder than ever for those struggling with body dysmorphia and related eating disorders to access the help they need over the tricky period of Christmas and New Year.

Kitty Wallace, head of ops at The BDD Foundation, says it’s key that anyone suffering seeks support online.

‘My advice to anyone who is struggling during this time is that you are not alone,’ she tells us. ‘Please do visit our website and reach out for help and support.

‘The good news is that with help, BDD is treatable and beatable.’

Need support? Contact the Samaritans

For emotional support you can call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123, email [email protected], visit a Samaritans branch in person or go to the Samaritans website.

To chat about mental health in an open, non-judgmental space, join our Mentally Yours Facebook group.

Follow us on Twitter at @MentallyYrs.

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