by Kristen Wright, LMFT, a former therapist at EDTLA
It’s the season for the holiday party…and an endless supply of scrumptious appetizers! It is time to get your small talk on and gather around friends and family to whom you may or may not be interested in talking. It is time for holidays…and anxieties. Maybe you have a tendency to overindulge on all the goodies at the food table. After all, you rarely get a chance to eat these sweets or homemade savories, so might as well. Maybe overeating is your daily habit and something you are not even thinking about. If you have any anxiety about socializing or overeating at a party, then this article is for you.
Managing Social Anxiety With Food
A few years ago, I found that I couldn’t stop snacking and grazing at parties. I would sometimes dread going to a party knowing that I would most likely overindulge in the sweet or savory delights. I would often wonder if people were watching me and taking notice of my extra size portions. It was a compulsive and conscious decision on my part because if I was eating, I didn’t have to worry about talking. I would think to myself, “What will I have in common with the other people at the party?” “What if I don’t have anything to say?” “What if I am not that interesting?” Maybe for you, there are other anxious thoughts: “I don’t want to share about my year.” “I don’t want to be reminded that I am still single.” “I don’t want to have to talk to strangers.”
Sometimes that table of food can be the way out of a dead conversation. If we are snacking at the table, we have a common interest and shared experience, and that common factor is the food. Many times, I would stand by the food table and just comment on the food with the people I was chatting with. And let’s say if I got into a conversation I wasn’t particularly interested in, I could excuse myself to go refill my plate. It became my escape behavior and after several years I realized I needed to address my anxieties and learn to better manage my social anxiety.
Addressing Social Anxiety
I had to develop a new focus when attending social events and parties. Rather than focusing on my discomfort, I started to focus my attention on learning about the other person. I started to find I could actually enjoy having a conversation. I also came to realize that I was becoming more of an explorer with every conversation. That was my new focus, and the other person was unaware of my anxiety or the reason for my probing. I was just learning how to actively listen to what was being said.
And I became less preoccupied with food. I found I could focus on the way they talked or perhaps their posture. In so doing I heard what they said. I stayed in the conversation and asked questions about what they were saying. It was about being “present” and the first few times were both an experiment and an experience. It was scary at first and I had to push myself. Time went by increasingly faster as I became engrossed in other things besides food. I no longer needed to quell my anxiety by satisfying my taste buds. And, although this helped to get me started, the second phase involved strengthening my hunger and fullness cues.
Addressing the Temptations of an Abundance of Food
There were some other factors that played a role in my overeating at parties and that was what we often refer to here at Eating Disorder Therapy LA as “Diet Mentality.” A lot of times I would go to a party and say, “I couldn’t or shouldn’t eat something.” Or sometimes I was like, “I never have access to these goodies, I might as well eat as many as I can.” We call this unhelpful all-or-nothing thinking. We can learn to change our thoughts. Learning to find the grey area between all-or-nothing thinking takes work but helps us to avoid overindulging.
Addressing the Disordered Eating at Parties
Let’s talk briefly about actual eating. Yes, it will take some conscious planning and preparation to prevent overeating at the party.
If you struggle with overeating at parties, here are some strategies you might try:
- Eat regular meals and snacks leading up to the party: Many times we try and restrict or skip meals prior to a party in anticipation of eating a lot at the party. This though sets you up to overeat. It is best to eat as regularly as possible.
- Make it a meal: If the party is during an actual mealtime, then plan to eat what would feel like a meal. If you are planning to eat a meal beforehand, pre-plan that you are having a snack or dessert at the party and recognize your options will be about what really tastes good.
- Scan the table of goodies: Do a survey of the food and make decisions to be selective about what you want rather than just loading up the plate as soon as you get there. When you make your choices of what to eat, taste what appeals to you and eat what tastes good. If something isn’t appealing or satisfying, then you have the freedom to not eat it. At Eating Disorder Therapy LA we work with our clients to help them understand what being and feeling satisfied is about and understanding fullness.
- Listen to when you get full: It might get a little disappointing to have to stop eating. But be present and mindful that this happens and the feeling will pass in a few minutes.
Finally, Practice Self-Compassion
- It is normal to indulge during holidays: Yes it is! And we need to remind ourselves we can enjoy and practice mindful eating at the same time. Remind yourself as well that you can have these treats again soon, maybe buy them, or have them at another party. That way you won’t fall into the fear that you won’t ever have these foods again and overindulge.