As we approach the end of year holidays, I am reminded how easy it is to forget to notice our bodies and what we eat, to slip into a kind of festive numbness. Our own best interests and resolutions about what to eat or not to eat can easily get lost in the blinding lights, bright spangles, and cheerful friends and family bearing mouthwatering treats. The overall atmosphere of intense stress mixed with intense excitement is enough to throw anyone off their game.
A couple of days ago, I read with interest an article in my local newspaper written by a syndicated columnist, a fitness expert and personal trainer, about the best ways to avoid weight gain during the holidays. I was looking, as I always do, for hints about how to keep the body sense alive but these hints were absent in the article. It included instead recommendations for keeping active, exercising an extra 10 minutes a day to work off the extra calories, avoiding snacks while sedentary, watching what you eat at times when you are not really hungry (like when someone offers you a homemade Christmas cookie), and having a healthy (like non-processed veggies, fruits, and nuts) snack and a glass of water before going to a holiday party so that you don't feel so hungry.
To be fair, these are all reasonable suggestions. Exercise, avoiding junk foods, and lowering your caloric intake have been shown to be effective in weight maintenance and loss, in addition to boosting your general health, in many research studies. But where is body sense in this list? Frankly, unless you stay in touch with your body's needs and feelings, you might as well put this list into your New Year's resolutions: something you'll do next year, maybe.
The problem with reasonable suggestions is that reason is not going to come to your aid when exposed to the shamelessly naked temptations of holiday treats. These pastries, nogs, and other confections have evolved over centuries of careful making and remaking to do just one thing: break down all possible resistance and annihilate intentions, lists, and, yes, reason.
Sure, you are thinking as you walk in the door to yet another holiday party, my fitness trainer told me to eat healthy snacks and avoid gratuitous calories at those parties that happen just before dinner. But, Margaret is saying how her grandmother baked those little tarts that have been in her family's tradition for . . . . (my arm is reaching out, trance-like) . . . "Thanks, Margaret, absolutely delicious. May I have another one?" Now, what is that chocolatey thing over on the corner table? Let's check that out.
In my previous blog post, I described some of the ways in which people overeat by getting caught in the headlights of social pressures and the presence of food. Women, because of their highly social orientation and concerns with physical appearance, are especially susceptible. I suggested that compared to advice about what to eat or not, using your body sense is a much more effective way to keep your eating within reasonable bounds. Research, which I reviewed, shows that letting your body sense guide you means that there are no rules to follow, no diet, no one else to please. It's all based on staying tuned in to how you feel. I'm not saying this is any easier than following rules at first, but once you get the hang of it, it is by far more reliable than reason and rules.
In my recent book, The psychophysiology of self-awareness: Rediscovering the lost art of body sense, I provide a table (Table 1.1, pp. 23-24) of 8 steps that I found to be common in learning all types of practices intended to cultivate and enhance the body sense, practices such as yoga, tai chi, some types of meditation, somatic psychotherapy, Somatic Experiencing, or awareness-based bodywork treatments like Rosen Method Bodywork and the Feldenkrais method.
Below, I translate these 8 steps into ways of enhancing your body sense around eating during the holidays. Note that they are listed in order of increasing skill in activating your body sense. Body sense, like athletics and music, has to be practiced and we improve with continued practice. This also means, to our dismay, that our skills are often not sufficient to the challenge, that we will sometimes eat too much or eat the wrong things. The good news, however, is that these steps are cumulative process and with continued practice, you will get better at staying with your body in the face of temptation.
1. Resources: Tuning into what makes your body feel good. Find non-edible ways to feel good, sources of comfort and support to make up for not eating everything you see. Get filled up on conversation, smiles, and hugs that make you feel warm and fuzzy. Bring a friend along. If all else fails, bring your teddy bear (Basic level body sense).
2. Slowing down: Giving yourself time to feel your body. Practice shifting from fast and uncontrollable processes like thinking and imagining and desiring to slow and concrete experiences like feeling your feet on the floor, your friend's hand holding yours, your belly's state of fullness (you did eat that healthy snack before coming to the party, right?), your emotions, or whatever else there is to feel in the present moment. Take the time to notice how food affects you: before, during, and after eating something. Remember how you felt the last time you gorged on goodies (Basic level body sense).
3. Coregulation: Using other people to help you regulate your eating. This is more advanced than level 1 and 2 because you have to get in touch with the fact that you can and do lose control when left to your own devices. Bring someone with you to the dinner or to the party who will help remind you to pay attention to your body. You have to give your supporter permission to do this, otherwise you put them in the position of your resenting them for "controlling" you. And, you have to work out together exactly how they will signal you or otherwise let you know that you are, admit it, out of control (Intermediate level of body sense).
4. Verbalization: Speaking about your concerns, fears, and needs regarding eating during the holidays. This is also an intermediate level skill because by verbalizing, you are making a commitment to yourself to stay in touch with your body. Tell fears, concerns, and wishes to your coregulating guide (friends, family) and if you don't have one, your host, or someone who shows up at the party that you trust. You can also record these concerns in your diary. Being honest and sincere with yourself is the best policy when it comes to keeping your body sense in your present moment awareness. This is not easy because it is like admitting you have a shameful addiction. Of course, you know you do, but making it public is another thing entirely (Intermediate level of body sense).
5. Links and boundaries: Learning to sense your actual body size and shape in relation to your past and to other people in your life. This is an even more advanced body sense because you have to take a cold, hard, and realistic look at yourself in the mirror, or in the eyes of someone else, to really see yourself as you are. As I wrote in my last blog post, only a small fraction of us are as thin or as beautiful as we might want to be. Not only way of looking difficult, it can be emotionally painful. You may need to expand your list of non-edible resources and coregulating guides. I didn't say that expanding your body sense would be easy. I just said you can count on the fact that the hard work will pay off in self-regulation, number 6 (Advanced body sense, honorable mention).
6. Self-regulation: Being proactive in recognizing your needs and desires, finding and using resources, asking for help when needed. Self-regulation does not necessarily mean that you can handle all food situations on your own. It only means that you recognize and honor, without question or doubt, what you need to do to maintain your most healthy weight and body shape. At this level, you are adopting not just a few new rules of the road but a life-style change in your relationship to food. The big pay-off is steps 7 and 8 (Advanced body sense, bronze medal)
7. Re-engagement: Becoming better able to stay in the present moment with your body sense, to trust it to tell you if you are really hungry, and if the food in front of you is good for you. At this level, you feel reasonably safe in most environments with food temptations. You have developed the ability to make appropriate choices about when to say "yes" and "no" to food, you can really taste and enjoy food as you eat it and feel how it affects your body, you have empathy and compassion for yourself, and you know how and when you can still be led astray. When you get here, you are really going to begin feeling good about yourself (Advanced body sense, silver medal).
8. Letting go: Walking through the edible world with confidence, trust in yourself and in your ability to stay in present moment awareness with your body around food. You are not influenced by social pressures (but you have compassion for and honor the people who are providing and preparing food). You can completely and fully get absorbed in every taste sensation and pleasurable palpitation of the food you choose to take into your body (and you know when to stop eating). You can walk away from any type of food, in any situation, when you are not hungry or when the type of food available is not good for your body. Wow, this is empowering and best of all real: pleasurable and deeply satisfying (Advanced body sense, gold medal).
Even if you are a body sense beginner, you can use your body sense skills to better follow the advice of fitness and weight loss gurus. Becoming aware of how your body feels when you eat and after you eat certain foods and relying on others for help may be enough to get you into a routine of regular exercise, buying healthy foods, and eating that fulfilling pre-party snack. Without body sense, however, you don't stand a chance. Food and food-bearing humans are forces of nature that can overpower the unaware. The advanced stages of body sense awareness, on the other hand, offer confidence, well-being, and improved health.
And remember, even skilled body sensers can lose it from time-to-time. Stress can compromise every muscle, skill, and good intention in our body, like when a normally pleasant person becomes irritable or demanding under pressure. Forgive yourself, and ask your guides to forgive you and not to judge you for your missteps. A little judgmental comment can increase your self-consciousness, make you stressed, throw you off, and in fact have the paradoxically opposite effect. Breathe, snuggle or make love, take a warm bath or a walk, or do whatever you need to do to come back to yourself. Whatever you need, that is, with the exception of eating more