The holidays bring warm thoughts of family and friends, cookies and fudge, presents and lights, but for many, the holidays bring a time of challenge.
Over the last month I've sat across from many folks as they talk about the loneliness and isolation they face at this time of the year. The holidays remind us of traditions and family, of those who are no longer with us, and those who we have fallen out of relationship with over time and space.
Don't get me wrong, it's not all doom and gloom. This is my favorite time of year, but I'd be remiss if I didn't express the challenges that can come with it.
As a person in long-term recovery from an eating disorder, the holidays, with all of the special gatherings that often focus on food and drink, can be trying. This is a time where I, like thousands of people in any kind of recovery, have to get very intentional about taking extra care of my self and of my daily practices.
Structure and routine are a great thing for the majority of human beings, and over the holidays, it's easy to get off of our schedules. There's a real beauty in sleeping in and staying up late to visit with friends and family, but it can also throw us for a loop. True recovery is all about flexibility. And for many of us, our illnesses were characterized by rigidity.
Rigidity is the driving force behind any struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, or the broad spectrum of control issues.
Being overly rigid in one area of our life can bleed into the other areas, and instead of giving us the sense of control that we so desire, it often leads to feelings of anxiety and chaos.
The principal of entropy (shout-out to my chemistry nerds) sums it up: when left to it's own devices the amount of disorder in the universe is always increasing. So too is this true in our lives. The more we try to control, the more out of control we actually make ourselves.
Our old patterns of control can creep in before we are even consciously aware of them, because those patterns were our default for so many years.
So, how do we prevent slipping into old patterns?
Become intimately aware of your red flags.
Notice when and where you are feeling overly rigid. The best way to "notice" this is tuning into your body. What things make your chest tighten or pulse race? What gives you a headache to think about, or makes your palms sweat? Chances are, you are holding the reins too tight in this area.
Do the uncomfortable thing. Do the opposite of what your control wants you to do.
For me, this process often looks like some variation of this at the holidays:
In preparation for being off my regular schedule in terms of movement, sleep, and nutrition, my control issues tell me to spend a bit too much time in the gym or to eat "super clean" for a week or so leading up to the holidays.
Time and time again, the more I give into my attempts to control my anxiety around being "off" my schedule, the more it takes over. This in-turn makes me extra anxious and edgy when I do get off of the schedule. Typically, this results in me feeling "off" and more irritable on the first day or two of the holiday. If I only get to see my family and friends once a month or a few times of the year, do I really want to spend this precious time in my own head about how I haven't moved my body?
I know this pattern, because it's happened every year for the last 10 years since I first developed an eating disorder. The difference over the last 5 years of being in recovery is this recognition of my red flags, my understanding of what it is I'm trying to control, and actively doing the opposite of what those control voices want.
Now, when I notice myself becoming a bit too invested in the idea of "getting a workout in", I take some time off. When my impulse is to "eat clean" out of some compensatory preparation for the cookies I may have next week, I eat what my body wants instead- which usually is something balanced, not something restrictive and "clean". I resist the impulse to restrict. I sit in the discomfort, and each time I do, I get stronger. Each time I do the opposite of what my control wants, my recovery wins.
Choosing to follow our control voices is choosing to follow fear.
Choosing fear and control is the opposite of choosing love and connection. Rigidity is the opposite of mental health. Mental health means flexibility in the face of uncertainty.
As we find ourselves right in the middle of the Holiday season, I challenge you to become a little more aware of your triggers. Notice when you are feeling "off", and get curious about it. Is it because your schedule is thrown off? Do you feel less in control of certain things? If so, that's okay.
The best way to regain a healthy sense of control during this time is by maintaining healthy daily practices.
If you don't have any practices at the moment, I encourage you to establish a really easy morning practice to get yourself grounded for the day. This could be as simple as reading a daily devotional first thing in the morning, or doing some light stretching. Maybe you listen to a guided meditation or an inspirational song.
For me, my morning routine goes with me where ever I go, regardless of where I am. It keeps me grounded and is pretty easy. I like to spend a bit of time reflecting or praying, a little time stretching to get grounded in my body (not working out), and some variation of reading, listening to something inspiring, or writing - these three things vary by how much time I've got. Sometimes, I wake up late, and my practice is just meditating and getting really present when I'm in the shower- listening to the water, and visualizing how I want to show up in my life for the day.
Like I said, you can get grounded and do a 1 minute practice if that's all the time you've got.
Whether you are in recovery, or struggle with trying to please your in-laws, wrap the gifts, or throw the perfect holiday party, we all need a little bit of grounding.
What is it you're trying to control?
Now give it 3 deep breaths. Exhale. You're good and you're safe. You can loosen your grip. You've got this.