Far from cause for celebration, the holidays can feel like a concentrated dose of all of our most difficult issues with food and family relationships. How do we avoid going off our meal plans and out of our minds during the 39 long days between Thanksgiving and New Year's? We asked Mirasol clinicians for suggestions, and they responded with a concrete list of tools for not only surviving the holidays, but perhaps using them as a springboard for fresh perspectives and personal growth.
- Maeve Shaughnessy, Clinical Director
- Sharon Davis, DBT Therapist
- Meghan Gilliland, Primary Therapist
- Don Hurst, Primary Therapist
- Rachel Nelson, Art Therapist
- Kim Kellow, Spiritual Integration Practitioner
Sharon: "The holidays are very difficult times for our clients. But the awesome part is that these are not new challenges, it's just everything you're already dealing with all wrapped up in one big package. If you are struggling with food and body image issues, holiday menus can be very challenging. If you have difficult family relationships, there may be additional stressors from spending more time with your family. Or if you no longer have a supportive family, then loneliness may surround the holidays. So all the tools that help you deal with those particular challenges can be applied during the holidays as well."
Don: "One of the tools that has proven most helpful for my clients is 'coping ahead', a DBT skill for emotional regulation. The way it works is you think ahead to what may be a stressful situation, like Christmas Eve dinner with your family. And you ask yourself, 'What about this situation is going to be stressful for me?', 'What are my likely emotions, thoughts and behaviors that are going to get in the way of my success?' and 'What are the specific tools that I already know — for example, 'safe place', tapping, 'checking the facts' — that I can use to deal with those emotions?' Imagine yourself in that stressful situation and practice using those skills until you can say, 'Okay, I've got this.' Follow up with a relaxation practice, like deep breathing.
Moderator: "Can you explain what you mean by 'safe place' and 'checking the facts'?
Sharon: "'Safe place' means imaging yourself in a safe, relaxing and beautiful place, and taking time to notice the details and relax in that place. 'Checking the facts' means determining what aspect of an event or situation are triggering for you, and questioning whether there is any part of your perspective that may be inaccurate, or whether you may be catastrophizing in any way, and also how you might cope if the catastrophe happened."
Kim: "Another useful tool is 'opposite action'. For example, many people who are depressed may tend to isolate during the holidays, and loneliness is a huge issue for many of our clients. So when you feel like isolating, an opposite action would be to pack up your laptop — or a book if you're old school — and go to a coffee shop, or go to a movie, just to be around people and change the scenery."
Sharon: "For people who don't have families who reinforce their new, healthier behaviors, it's important to find people in the community who do. That might be at a 12-step meeting, AA, Al-Anon or EDA. Those groups can provide a supportive environment for people in recovery or who are working toward recovery."
Kim: "There's also the spiritual aspect. Your family may hold religious beliefs that don't resonate for you. You may feel pressured to attend church or temple services with them. How can you do that and still be yourself? Part of the answer may be simply accepting people as they are — it's called 'radical acceptance' — and just being there with people you care about because you are supporting them. It doesn't have to be about you in this case, it can just be a family thing."
Maeve: "Holidays are a time to connect with others and build a community and get outside of yourself. Eating disorders by their very nature are so isolating, so getting out in the community and doing volunteer work can help get out of the eating disorder mindset and give back to the community."
Rachel: "The holidays can be very stressful, but it's a stress we can anticipate and prepare for by practicing the skills that work for us. The more you do your work before the holidays, the easier the holidays will be. If you have difficult family relationships, it may be helpful to practice dispassionately observing your interactions with your family members rather than allowing yourself to slip into familiar but dysfunctional ways of relating to them."
Kim: "You can also practice saying 'no'. Many of our clients find it very difficult to do that. So it's easy to be overwhelmed by a long list of holiday obligations. But you don't have to say 'yes' to everything. Do what makes the holidays joyful for you."
Don: "For many of our clients who are newly recovered, or taking a break from treatment to go home for the holidays, a big challenge is following their meal plans. How do you make your meal plan work with holiday menus? Does that mean eating separately, or mixing and matching some of your exchanges with the foods that are served? Do you have a backup plan? Who in the environment can provide support for any food issues that arise? My advice is to follow the '80/20 rule,' meaning aim to follow your meal plan 80% of the time and don't stress about the other 20%."
Sharon: "Since the holidays are an extra stressful time, so it's important to practice lots of extra self-care. Warm baths, a cup of hot tea, wrapping up in a blanket, looking at the stars, buying yourself flowers, using essential oils — doing sensory things that feel good and soothing and comforting so that the additional difficulties aren't so overwhelming."
Rachel: "Try as much as possible to maintain your routines, especially if you are traveling out-of-town, for example meditation, prayer or yoga — whatever you need to maintain a sense of normalcy."
Meghan: "The holidays are also an opportunity to start new traditions, especially if your family follows certain traditions that don't work for you. Recovery is a time for new beginnings, so if there's something you've always wanted to do, or ways you'd like to change your holiday traditions, now is a good time to make that change for yourself."
Sharon: "If you're in recovery, you're in a new place, and the holidays are going to be different. So you are free to approach the holidays from the standpoint of curiosity rather than dread. 'How will this be different?' 'I've never seen this before because I've never been in this healthier place before'."
Rachel: "Approaching the holidays in that light could give you a year's worth of therapy. You may impress yourself with your ability to work through things you could never work through before. The holidays provide you with opportunities for growth and to apply everything you have learned about yourself."