The holiday season is a universally stressful time of year – a lot of people get stressed about money, winter is upon us, there is a lot to do that is out of our daily routines. Given all this, it is no wonder it gets to us.
While it might seem stressful to add mindfulness to your list, it can help us manage the stress and get the most out of the season. After all, this is a time to connect and be thankful as well. And for those with eating disorders, the holidays can feel like an enormous roadblock – parties, dinners, family, travel – that just keeps hitting you from Halloween all the way to Valentine’s Day.
Here are some ways to use mindfulness to cope with the season in general as well as some ways that loved ones and those with eating disorders can use it to mitigate the negative impact their eating disorders have on the holidays.
Practice gratitude and acceptance – If there is only one part of this that you implement, let it be this. Practicing gratitude through journaling, affirmations, meditation or prayer has been proven over and over to increase general life satisfaction, improve medical outcomes, and elevate happiness scores. Obviously, we focus on this at Thanksgiving but let’s not end it there! Just thinking about gratitude is enough to get the positive effects – even better if you are able to do it every day. Also, saying your thanks to others helps you share that gift with the people you care about.
Acceptance operates in much the same way, but it allows you to get un-stuck from the worries, demands, or people that might get you down. If you are able to identify those situations beyond your control that are getting you stuck, sometimes all it takes is acknowledgement to accept the situation and move through it. The same way you write, speak, or think gratitude works for acceptance – though you might not want to tell your Great Aunt Ann out loud that you accept her fill in the blank issue.
Be aware of your own needs – it is important to be open to and make space for your own needs, thoughts, and feelings. We all have different associations with the holidays – family, traditions, past experiences, loss – and need space to process them our own ways. Do not forget to take care of yourself and be good to yourself.
Allow yourself some peace – letting go of judgement, enjoying experiences and not focusing on the outcomes, doing less, unplugging, and spending some time alone are just some of the ways we can get some peacefulness and space in our lives. There is no other time of year when we have so much time with our support system and so many reminders of the importance of them. Everyone on the planet needs that in their lives. But we need to remember that everyone has different levels of need for connection and it is important to give yourself and your loved ones room to do that in their own ways.
Play – having fun is sometimes lost in the busyness of the season. What makes you smile? What positive associations do you have with different holiday or winter activities? Adults need playtime too! Think about something you liked as a child and do it with your own kids, your dog, or your partner. Connect. Make it happen!
Practice compassion – compassion and lovingkindness are two important concepts to apply to yourself as well as others. When we keep compassion in the forefront of our minds, it allows us to take care of ourselves, and be more attentive and more relaxed. Usually, that also makes us kinder and more open to others, keeping the holiday spirit alive.
For those whose loved ones are suffering with an eating disorder, here are some other ways to manage food stress associated with the holidays:
Don’t be the “food police” – for adults, it is not anyone else’s responsibility to manage their food choices, it is something each individual has to decide. If you have an eating disorder, try to stick with the plan that you and your therapist and dietician have worked out. If you are supporting someone, talk about what would be helpful to them ahead of time and follow through.
Pick your moments – walking on eggshells or avoiding difficult topics might let your family dinner be more peaceful, but some issues do need to be addressed. If you are concerned about someone’s eating behavior, or even just their stress level, it is important to talk about it. But maybe not at the dinner table or in front of the uncle who gossips about everyone all the time. If you do confront them or attempt to have a conversation, make sure you are being honest and saying what you mean to say. It might even be helpful to have a plan, especially if you have tried to talk about it before and it hasn’t gone well.
Let go of judgment (and practice compassion) – mindfulness is all about not judging. There are lots of stereotypes that stigmatize eating disorders – do not assume you know what their experience is like (or vice versa).
Family can sometimes trigger judgment and criticism – try to notice when you are judging yourself or internalizing messages from others. Next, take a step back and try to observe the feelings without judging them and you might be able to give yourself some much needed space for kindness, empathy, and compassion.
Use “I” statements – eating disorder or not, it is never a good idea to assume you know where the other person is coming from. “I” statements – “I feel (an emotion) when you do this behavior or say this specific thing) .” help solve this problem. By expressing your own feelings, you increase your ability to connect and reduce defensiveness. Stick to pointing out what you have observed and keep your non-verbal communication calm and open.
Here are some things that are never appropriate – “Just eat!” and “Just stop!” are not useful comments. Never comment on the weight or with an eating disorder or tell them they look ”healthy” – try not to make any comments about that, especially when food is involved. Commenting on what they are eating, especially during a meal, is not helpful (unless they ask you for feedback directly).