Taylor Pini, MA, LPC
The holidays for many are seen as a time for joy, celebration, and connection but there is another side to them that is not always openly discussed. While holidays can bring us closer to friends and family, which is beneficial for our mental health, they can also be filled with tension, chaos, pressure, and lack of routines. Specifically, holidays are often surrounded by food-related celebrations and getting dressed up, which can be triggering for those who struggle with their bodies and food. This is often a silent struggle for those experiencing this version of the holiday season, as to not go against what a joyful time it is “supposed” to be.
We see it every year: those talking about and posting their big gatherings, long thought-out holiday outfits, and slaved-over meals. What we don’t see is the anxiety and fearful thoughts experienced by those struggling with body image and disordered eating. Stress during the holidays is quite common with the pressure to make it memorable and often results in us lacking our own self care to achieve a picture perfect image of our holiday celebrations. This stress can impact our mental health, which can then manifest in our physical bodies as discomfort, tension, fatigue, headaches, stomach aches, etc. For those already feeling this discomfort in their bodies on a daily basis, this season can exacerbate these physical and mental reactions.
For those struggling with body image and disordered eating, there are a few things worth keeping in mind this holiday season to cope:
- Maintain your usual eating routine: Many of us sacrifice our breakfast and lunch to “save up” for the big dinner that is looming over us on the holidays. By trying to maintain our meals it gives us a sense of routine and to look at the holiday meal as just part of what we usually do – eat dinner.
- Practice grounding exercises the days leading up to and day of the meal: This will help you feel more connected to your body to better identify hunger-fullness cues. This may include deep breathing exercises (box-breathing, 4-7-8 breathing), pausing between bites, making an effort to look up from your plate and connect with someone at the table.
- Avoid labeling foods that may be outside of your comfort zone as “good” or “bad”: Instead remind yourself all foods have nutritional value and are not a deciding factor on who you are. By being neutral about the foods available to us on holidays we decrease internalized judgment on ourselves and instead look at food for what it is: nutrition and during the holidays it can be celebratory as well.
- Maintain Conversation: Trying to be present and engaged in conversation at the table during your holiday meal can be a helpful distraction from the focus being on what you are eating.
- Ask for Support: If there is someone you trust attending your holiday celebration, openly communicating your anxieties with them and figuring out how they can be there to support you can feel quite relieving.
When it comes to the comparing and pressure we may feel during the holidays here are a few ways to practice self love and body neutrality:
- Utilize Positive Affirmations and Gratitudes Daily: Think about what your body does for you on a daily basis outside of its physical appearance (i.e. lets you hug your dog, allows you to walk during sunset). To focus on the things that we are grateful for allows our mind to more easily identify and connect to those parts of ourselves and our lives. I always like to say we don’t want to “feed” our inner critic by only focusing on the negatives. Gratitudes can be simple and do not have to be these extravagant experiences to help us rewire our brains to focus on those parts of life more.
- Reframe our negative/anxious thoughts: We can often fall into fears and assumptions around what the holidays and food will do to our bodies. It is important to Check the Facts and develop some neutral alternative thoughts to these anxious ones. (i.e. “A few different foods or bigger meals on the holidays do not automatically change our bodies”; “It is not shameful to enjoy yourself and eat some foods you would not normally have on the holidays”; “It’s not my favorite outfit but I feel cozy in this and that is what matters”).
- Connect with your body through compassionate movement: We can have the urge to compensate for holiday meals by over-working our bodies, which often has negative consequences for our mental and physical health. Instead of punishing your body for celebrating the holidays, try taking a walk or practicing yoga/meditation.
- Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries: Many of us have that family member that loves to cross the line with their comments or discussion topics, so it is important for us to recognize our limits and set boundaries. For family members or friends that engage in body-shaming comments, it can be helpful to have a few go-to concise responses that set a boundary for yourself. Statements such as, “I would prefer not to discuss this topic” or even stepping away from the conversation can be good starting points.
A loved one can show support in different ways during the holidays for those struggling with body neutrality and disordered eating:
- Check in with the person who may be struggling throughout the day, but do this privately as to not draw unwanted attention.
- Talk beforehand with the person about what their warning signs are that they may be struggling so you can pay attention throughout the day.
- Model body neutrality during these times.
- Validate how difficult this season can be and discuss ways you can help to make it more manageable for them.
- Alternate Activities throughout the day to distract from the main focus being on the food such as a board game, movie, decorating, etc.
Body image distress and eating disorders often result in disconnection and isolation from others, which makes it important to surround yourself with those that are supportive when it comes to body neutrality and self love during the holiday season. Everyone’s holiday experiences can look different and that is OK! If the premise of this season is to connect, relax, and feel joy then we are allowed to choose the things that give that to us instead of comparing to what we think others are doing or what is “acceptable.” With all of the things out of our control during the holiday season, it is important to remember what we can, including engaging in self love, body neutrality, and connecting with those supports we trust. If you feel you could benefit from professional support and help with any body image struggles or eating disorder behaviors, we are here for you! Please head to www.wellnesscounselingbc.com and call the number on our website or fill in our online client inquiry form.