Meal time can be a highly charged time for parents who have a child with an eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. The parents, the child with the disorder, and the siblings and other family members may all feel high levels of tension, angst, unhappiness, and dread.
Parents and caregivers may feel like they are walking on eggshells, desperately afraid to include an ingredient or say something that will set off an argument or cause their loved one to withdraw. They worry:
- Will he/she eat?
- Will this meal be tense or relaxed?
- How will I help him/her through it without my fears or frustration showing?
- Will he/she keep the food down?
- What will be the aftermath of this meal, and how will I handle it?
At the same time, the individual in recovery may be anxious before the meal even begins. In my early recovery days, the smell of food cooking would instantly set off a barrage of fears and worries such as:
- Can I do this without freaking out?
- Will I gain weight?
- Do I have to eat all of it?
- How can I act normal when I feel so scared?
- Will I let my parents down again?
As for other family members, they may feel annoyance, jealousy, anger, fear, and so many other feelings that deserve to be honored as well. They may act out either towards the person who has the eating disorder or towards others at the table in an attempt to process their feelings.
If any part of what I am describing is a familiar scene in your home it may help to use some simple poses to defuse anxious energy before coming together to eat. They can be done alone or together.
These activities, when done mindfully, can help everyone calm their nervous systems and arrive at the table in a more relaxed state of body and mind.
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.
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.
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, the meal experience is more positive when we bring less emotional weight with us to the table. I intimately know that all family members’ feelings are well founded. I also understand that these exercises won’t take away all the agitation that one 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 before the meal starts.
You can do them on your own or as a family. 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.
These simple grounding exercises will help everyone pause, get a grip, and then come together from a place of calm and centeredness.
Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, E-RYT 200, RYT 500, is a yoga teacher and yoga therapist specializing in eating disorders and body image. In recovery herself, Jennifer is extremely passionate about helping others reconnect with their bodies and be empowered in their lives. Jennifer works with clients in person and via Skype. She also teaches yoga at the Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Philadelphia and is a partner with the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. She leads trauma-sensitive yoga classes and teaches weekly flow yoga classes. Jennifer contributes regularly to eating disorder and body image blogs and the YogaLiving Magazine. Website