Somehow November is here again already, and with it the beginning of the holiday season. I admit, even after all these years, my yearly habitual tapes are slowly but surely turning on about holiday food and family stress. In the past, these worries would hurl me into my eating disorder. I believed I had to “save up” or “make space” for what was coming. This year, I’m shutting down “ED head” and pouring my focus elsewhere. On my hands, to be exact.
“Your hands,” you ask? Yes, that’s right, my hands, and here’s why. We use our hands to give, prepare, offer, create, share, greet, and pray. When done with presence and sincerity, these actions come from a place of goodness and connect us with others and our world. Our hands also prepare our food and feed our bodies, minds, and souls.
But, as you know, we also can use our hands in ungiving ways, too. We clench our fists or wring our hands. We push food away or eat mindlessly with them. In this way, our hands hold great tension as they quietly but emphatically express dread and fear. When we are anxious to this extent, enjoying a holiday meal, or any meal for that matter, is nearly impossible.
But, we have a choice. We can arrive at the holiday table stressed and tense or we can take a few moments before the meal to ground and get a grip. So, if any part of what I’m describing (clenched hands, spinning thoughts, angst at holiday meals) is familiar to you, it may help to use some simple grounding exercises before, during, and/or after the meal. The best part about these exercises is that they only include your hands and can be done quite inconspicuously. These activities, when done mindfully, can calm your nervous system and help you arrive at the table more relaxed and open to the experience before you.
1. Prayer Hands
Firmly press your hands together and bring your awareness to the feeling of palm into palm, fingertips into fingertips. Take a few moments to stay focused on the feeling of your hands pressing into one another as you take 10 deep breaths in and out. Count the breaths to help deepen your focus and detach from stressful worries about the impending meal.
Stay with this hand position and your breath for as long as you need, and remember that you can return to it again during and after the meal as many times as is helpful to ground again.
2. Thumb to Finger Counts
Sit or stand still in a comfortable position. Close your eyes if you prefer. With one or both hands, connect your thumb to your index finger. Slowly tap your thumb one at a time to each finger. Bring all your concentration to this simple action and repeat “I am calm” (or another affirmation that resonates with you) as you move from finger to finger and repeat several times.
You can vary the speed of this exercises from slow to fast, depending on what helps you relax most. I like to do this before a meal, but it is also helpful to do during a meal under the table with the hand that’s not holding a utensil. The concentration it takes to do this exercise will help shift your mind away from thoughts and emotions that pull you off your center.
3. Palm Press
Many of us carry tension in our hands without even realizing it. We hold our hands as fists, subconsciously prepared to fight. We might even hold such tight fists that we dig our nails into our palms. All that clenching travels up our arms and into our necks, shoulders, and upper back, causing muscle pain and tightness.
Take a few moments before a meal to physically relax your hands and upper body. Open your hands, spread your fingers, and firmly (but not forcefully) place your hands against something solid, like a wall or table. Take several deep breaths and purposefully relax your shoulders, neck, jaw, and eyes.
Hold this simple connection between your hands and a solid structure until you feel grounded and more relaxed than when you started this exercise. You can repeat this at the table during the meal as you feel tension creep into your shoulders and neck and hands. You can also press your hands into a family member’s or someone you trust and take several grounding breaths together.
In my personal recovery experience and professional experience as a yoga therapist, meals are more positive when we bring less emotional weight with us to the table. I understand that these exercises won’t take away all the agitation that you may feel. They will, however, help focus that intensely frenetic emotional energy by calming your mind, easing muscle tension, and creating a mindful pause to center and ground yourself. And, you may need to do one or all of them multiple times to get through a meal. That’s OK, I promise. So much of making this process palatable is learning simple ways to ground our minds and bodies when panic hits so that we aren’t overcome with frustration and fear.
Give these simple grounding exercises a try, why not? You may find that they will help you pause, get a grip, and come to the table–holiday or not–more calm and centered. You deserve that!