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Mental health professionals share tips on a drama-free Thanksgiving

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Austin American-Statesman on Nov. 19, 2012.

It’s time to ‘fess up: Every year, when we start to plan our Thanksgiving coverage, all I really want to write about is the psychological complexities of the holiday. Not how to make a better turkey or an ode to my favorite side dish, but how to deal with the emotional holiday baggage that we all seem to carry in one form or another.

It’s not that I don’t look forward to the meal, but every year, when 20 or so members of my family convene, I spend the entire day just waiting for drama to surface. In recent years, I’ve joked that I need Thanksgiving therapy, so last week, I sought out some professionals for some advice on dealing with the ups and downs of the big day.

Dale Milner, a local therapist and social worker, says that Thanksgiving comes at a time when many of us are struggling with seasonal affective disorder, pre-holiday financial and/or travel anxiety and, above all, expectations that have been ingrained since childhood about what the holidays are supposed to be and how we’re supposed to feel as we go about them. And this week’s holiday is just the start of what can be a painfully long season that doesn’t end until the bills are paid in January.

“Thanksgiving is supposed to be about family and love and joy and closeness, and many families just don’t really live up to those expectations, ” she says. “Society is telling you to be happy and that this is the best time of the year, but it brings a tremendous amount of stress.”

The turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes and stuffing aren’t just comfort foods in and of themselves; the ritual of eating them on this day brings a great deal of emotional satisfaction and creates a connection to the past, Milner says.

Even people who are super health-conscious or adhere to a certain diet or food lifestyle, such as rejecting processed foods, will make exceptions on this one day, often in an attempt to reconnect with childhood feelings and memories.

Unfortunately, food also can be a coping mechanism that helps us deal with emotional stress, and many people, even those who have not been diagnosed with an eating disorder, use food to self-medicate, just as they could with alcohol and drugs, says Allison Chase, a licensed psychologist who specializes in eating disorders.

“Food is one of the few things that uses all five of our senses, so you can see why it would be so stimulating and soothing at the same time, ” Chase says. “You can numb yourself from dealing with the rest of the family and pretending that they don’t exist.”

Even when the meal is over, the focus continues to be on the food: How much we ate, how it compared to last year, how full we are.

“Because it is a holiday with everyone eating a lot, it’s almost as if you have permission to emotionally eat, ” Chase says.

Chase says it’s important for people to look within themselves to recognize whether this one day is going to be a trigger that will start a season of unhealthy emotions about eating or whether it can really just be one day of overindulging.

“Be conscious of what it is that triggers you, ” Chase says, be it the mashed potatoes or a particular person at the dinner table. Be willing to remove yourself (or that certain food) from the situation before things get out of control.

Chase says it’s just a fact of life that relatives who would otherwise act in a respectful manner around strangers don’t necessarily behave that way around their own family members, so if you are dreading aunt so-and-so’s comment , come up with a response ahead of time .

No amount of therapy could dissolve completely every issue family members have ever had with one another, so you can’t expect everyone to suddenly get along just because it’s a holiday, Milner says.

But acknowledging what is going on emotionally within yourself can help you be prepared for whatever happens over the course of the Thanksgiving weekend.

“Talking about it with a friend or someone close to you could help relieve a lot of stress and gain some perspective on the situation, ” she says. Consider inviting a friend to dinner who can offer support .

Both Chase and Milner suggest finding activities, either as a group or by yourself, to do during the day to keep idle hands (and mouths) busy.

Take some time to be by yourself, she adds, even if it means you have to lock yourself in the bathroom at your in-laws to take a long bath. Exercising on Thanksgiving morning or taking a walk after the meal can stimulate endorphins, and Milner suggests spending a little extra time in the sunshine, which boosts the chemicals in your body that improve mood.

When everyone gets together, play a game of football, go see a movie and find a way to bring more laughter to the day. Play a game of charades while you’re waiting for the turkey to finish cooking or swap YouTube videos of cute animals.

“The day can revolve around other things, too, ” Chase says.

I’ll take some of these suggestions to heart this week, and I’ll also meditate on a stirring essay from novelist Michael Chabon in this month’s Bon Appetit about the enormous psychological challenge we face every year at this time: How to embrace traditions that revolve around sameness while acknowledging that our lives are enriched and defined by change.

My favorite passage (you can read the entire piece here):

“Nothing lasts; everything changes. People die, and marriages dissolve, and friendships fade, and families fall apart, whether or not we appreciate them; whether or not we give thanks every waking moment or one night a year. For the act of returning to the same table, to the same people and the same dishes — to the same traditions — can blind you to life’s transience. It can lull you into believing that some things, at least, stay the same. And if that’s what you believe, then what have you got to be grateful for?”

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