Happy Thanksgiving Week!

Personally, I believe that Halloween kicks off the holiday season, giving us two full months to connect with loved ones, look back on our year, and celebrate being alive. For this, I am grateful. I do love a time to create and reflect.

Yet, this was not always the case for me. It is natural that the holiday season is emotional, and can drive up whatever it is that we have to celebrate, or that which we avoid. Ten-to-fifteen years ago, I was fearful in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. This was before I had made the commitment to talk to a registered dietician, and before I had cultivated mindful eating practices.

Mindful eating was not part of my vocabulary. In my mind, food, family, and parties were a tricky mix. Would I end up binge-eating when I least expected it? It seemed like no matter how much resolve I had, nor how prepared, I always became fixated on my fear during the holidays, and coped by focusing on food and drink, rather than supporting my heart and mind in creating connections in the conversations I was having.

The other day I mentioned emotional eating. My friend said, “Who isn’t an emotional eater?” I had to think about that. At first I agreed, and then I remembered the years in my life in which I was eating purely to avoid my emotions.

“Well, emotional eating is a little bit different than eating for pleasure, socialization, or for nutrition. Instead of thinking about uncomfortable thoughts, or worrying about confronting issues, emotional eaters use food to avoid situations. Whereas food is naturally very social and healing, when I was an emotional eater, I was controlling my food and obsessing about food. It was easier to think about food for me, than to think about my feelings.”

Certainly, in this way, the name “emotional eating” is a misnomer, because yes, food is pleasurable, it is important, and brings up emotions.  When I think of how I process my emotions now, I think about the relationships in my life and the conversations that I’m having. I also think about how my self-care is coming along.

It was my amazing nutritionist Sara Cowlan who helped me to cultivate behaviors on Thanksgiving day that allowed me to connect with other people and my own feelings, rather than become obsessed with the food and fear a freakout.

Here are some helpful lessons I learned in how to to avoid being emotionally triggered on Thanksgiving Day.

  • Identify What Triggers Us

The first step was to recognize consciously what had me disconnecting with people, and checking out, rather than checking in. For instance, if I was working up some story in my head and anticipating how my family would be treating me, rather than talking to them about my desires and hopes for creating a special day together; this story in my mind was setting the stage for scenarios in which I could prove that my family didn’t fully support me. I learned to talk to my loved ones ahead of time, about how we were going to spend the day, rather than assuming anything, and to share why this was important to me.  I learned that I needed to create new understandings, before the day of the big event.

  •   Help to Plan the Meal

In 2005, I was very grumpy about eating turkey, and felt that it was a silly meal, based on an outdated tradition. What I learned is that, instead of sitting at the table, resenting the meal, I can call up the host ahead of time and ask what I can contribute.  This has me taking an action and contributing, so that I can share some special items. It also has me speaking openly about what the holiday meal represents, and creating something new.

  • Practice Mindful Eating

Staying conscious about our feelings and our bodies during the meal is important. But how do we check in on them? Are we breathing? Breathe deep and take a moment to consider your intentional behaviors. How about chewing, and savoring the flavors?  By slowing the actual eating process down, we can help ourselves to create the intention of enjoying one another, and the food, rather than eating as much food (or as little food, depending on your habits) as possible. Be with the food, and be with the people around you, rather than being consumed by a need to control your food intake.  

  • Identify Which Scenarios on The Holiday Are a Concern and a Potential Trigger for Unconscious Eating

Sara, my nutritionist asked me to share what parts of the day were inducing my fears. Sadly, the part where everyone sits around the table chatting and talking, after most of the meal is eaten, was my least favorite part. I was deathly afraid that I would keep eating, even though I was full, and have not only 2nds, but also a 3rd, 4th, and 5th serving. As a binge-eater, that was not hard to do, but it left me feeling very uncomfortable.

By knowing that was the case for me, and realizing that Thanksgiving is about the whole experience of being together, and not just the meal, I was able to realize that there is nothing wrong with excusing myself, and inviting people to join me (if I liked) when I pleasantly full. There is no need to feel like a prisoner at the table! Saying, “Thank you so much! I’m going to get some fresh air by the window.” is totally reasonable, and give us time to connect with our bodies.

  • When You are Full, Give Yourself Physical Cues That it is Ok to Stop Eating

I felt like the meal was a runaway train. Sara gave me a few cues to let myself know that I was stopping the feeding frenzy.  I told her that I was embarrassed to look like I wasn’t eating, or worried that people would ask me why I wasn’t eating as much as I normally did.  As I binge-eater, it was known that I had a “healthy” appetite.

She pointed out that most people are more engaged in enjoying the conversations, and then gave me some physical cues.

  • Put your silverware down
  • No need to be a member of the clean plate club
  • Put your napkin on your plate when you feel full
  • Push your plate a little bit away from you
  • Take your plate to the kitchen and put it in the sink
  • Invite People to Do Something Else

Being at the meal is about feeling fulfilled, satisfied, and grateful. Feel free to share those feelings doing something else! And if you are feeling sad, or mad, its ok to share those feelings too. Just know, that you can have the freedom to be yourself, and that the people surrounding us, are often more available than we think they are. As long as we are willing to have conversations, rather than suffering in silence, and numbing out with food, we can create connections, instead of feeling isolated.

After you feel full, and when you are ready to leave the table, you can say, “I’m going to go outside for a walk. Would anyone like to join me?” Or, “I’m going to sit in the living room to digest. If anyone would like to play a game, I have a deck of cards!”  The day is about sharing, and sharing some fun or fresh air, is just as good as sharing a meal.

So, take a few minutes to think about what keeps you feeling mindful when you are with people. Breath deep, and enjoy the freedom that comes along with being fully self-expressed.


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