Navigating Lunar New Year

Contributed by EDQ Volunteer Diana, who grew up celebrating Chinese New Year traditions by spending time reconnecting with family.

Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year, is a joyful time to celebrate and appreciate Asian culture and heritage, but there are potential stressors and emotional triggers during this time of year that may pose challenges for those in recovery.

As with many holidays, this time of year can bring about a lot of emotions regardless of whether you are living with eating and body image issues. There are numerous traditions revolving around food events with family members, both immediate and extended, which may be confronting and challenging – particularly for those with eating issues. Having a strategy in mind ahead of time can make it easier for you to participate in the festivities throughout the New Year.

Mindful Eating and Food

The New Year is often marked with traditional meals that feature a wide variety of textures and flavours. But what some might enjoyable may pose challenges for those in recovery. This, coupled with potential stressors such as social eating and familial expectations, can make eating for recovery even more difficult. This can pose a greater need to be more attentive to hunger cues, stress triggers and boundaries on our self-care.
Remember that mealtimes might look different during this time of year. Food is symbolic and celebratory as well as nourishing to our bodies.

Lunar New Year Traditions/Self Care and Boundaries

Taking part in certain traditions may be difficult to those on their recovery journey, and therefore you might feel reluctant to take part in them. Setting a boundary around these traditions may be difficult, and you might feel like you want to compromise them or opt out of them all together. Your recovery or safety is always paramount and there is no shame in taking steps to keeping yourself safe.

Shopping for new clothes before the new year is a tradition observed by many, as it symbolizes new beginnings and having plenty for the rest of the year. However, trying on clothes and spending time assessing your appearance in the mirror can be triggering. Some helpful steps around this might be knowing what about clothes shopping is a trigger (feeling overwhelmed in a shop, looking in a mirror, physical sensations of trying on the clothing, etc) and setting up boundaries around those areas (limiting the amount of time spent in a shop, ordering clothing online). If not engaging in this tradition will keep you safe during this time of year, putting yourself first can be empowering and protective.

Traditional food items such as nian gao (sticky rice cake), steamed whole fish and tang yuen (sweet glutinous rice balls) are auspicious symbols of good fortune, but those in recovery may feel conflicted about the prospect of eating these meals. Ways to mitigate the challenges that might come up are going through menus if possible – knowing the food items that will be featured during the reunion dinner may reduce potential anxieties, or even inspire you to try something new!

Support People including Treatment Team

If you have a treatment team, communicate with them to build a meal plan to help navigate events. Knowing what traditional meals that may be on the menu can help you identify the foods you are comfortable eating, and what you might find challenging. Even if you don’t have a treatment team, the people you hold close can be a valuable form of informal support. These people might be your friends, family or members of your community. You don’t need to disclose that you are struggling with disordered eating but think about if that would be more helpful for you in the long term.
Don’t forget, services like The Butterfly Foundation may be able to assist with strategies or support.

Having a plan in mind to work from can help manage anxieties around food and gatherings. Prior to the holidays, checking in with your treatment team can be a great way to plan strategies for managing anxiety.
You might feel guilty or critical of yourself if you avoid traditional food/customs that come with the New Year. Remember that self-compassion and kindness to yourself can help you to deal with thoughts/the inner critic.
Try replacing these critical thoughts with affirmations such as:

“Recovery is hard work – I am trying really hard”
“It’s ok to struggle – I’m strong and can get through this”
“Be patient - it’s ok for recovery to take time”

The holidays can be busy and your mindset, mood, and anxiety are likely to shift throughout. Being surrounded by large groups of friends or family may be overwhelming and you might find that things might not go according to plan.
Self-compassion might be hard, but it is a valuable tool for navigating difficult emotions around the holidays. Remind yourself that you are truly doing your best, and things not going according to plan can form an opportunity for you to grow and learn.

Don’t forget, you don’t have to go through it alone. Reaching out to your support person if you have one can alleviate those anxieties.

How do I handle judgment about food and comments on my appearance at family gatherings?

  • Individuals in recovery may struggle with setting boundaries with family members around comments regarding food and appearance, as “talking back” to your elders is viewed as inappropriate due to cultural norms. Identify if any of your friends or family members present are a form of support and sit next to them during the meal. Don’t be afraid to ask for a break if you need it.

  • Food is not inherently good or bad. It’s okay to eat an amount you are comfortable with. Food in Asian culture is often symbolic of prosperity and good fortune, but it is ultimately for enjoyment and nourishment, and enjoyment looks different for everybody!

  • A typical feeling that many of us experience around tradition is “I have trouble saying no”, especially towards our elders. There may be situations and conversations that may be challenging for someone in recovery. In anticipation for these challenging experiences, it might be helpful to think about what these conversations might look like so that you can plan responses ahead of time.

  • You can’t prepare for everything; sometimes you may need to take a breath and let the comment pass. Speak with your supports later when you have a safe space available, if you need to.

How do I cope with difficult emotions after eating a large meal?

  • Journaling might be a helpful way of verbalizing the emotions you are experiencing.

  • Distraction – This could be anything: have a chat with someone about a topic you love, read, play board games, or go for a wander around your neighbourhood with someone you feel comfortable with.

  • Remember that this is just one meal – it’s okay to eat a different amount at one meal, and it is more important to make sure you are eating a sufficient amount of food on a regular basis.

For Carers and Support People: How do we have a reunion dinner with someone in recovery?

  • While challenging food rules and eating disorder behaviours is important, the meal on New Year’s Eve isn’t the best time and place to do so. Drawing attention to the eating disorder or particular foods and behaviours during a large gathering of friends and/or family isn’t helpful. As much as food tends to be the feature of the event, modeling healthy behaviour may make the event a safer place for someone in recovery.

  • In an ideal world, diet chat doesn’t exist, so why let it feature in what could be a joyous occasion? Avoid terms like “guilty” and “I’m so bad for eating this”.

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