Dear Dr. Peacock,
Thanksgiving is coming up and I’m absolutely terrified. I see my family a few times a year and my extended family even less often. Over the years, politics have come up and it’s always painful and anxiety-provoking. I usually end up stress eating all day (in addition to the main feast) which causes even more pain and discomfort. Any tips for keeping my cool?
—Lefty in Prospect Lefferts Gardens
Welcome to the legions of stressed-out turkey gobblers whose anxieties are ramping up faster than an impeachment hearing. You are not alone.
There is a reason we all live right here in Brooklyn. If we weren’t born and raised here, we probably migrated here to be surrounded by diversity, culture, and a community that supports us. Holiday time can be harsh reminder that family members may have not updated their expired thoughts on social justice and equality. And if your family is anything like mine, it seems like the empty wine bottles start to pile up in the recycling bin after a couple of hours, assuming your family has been clued in about the climate crisis and actually has a recycling bin.
So what do you do when Uncle Archie starts chanting “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”? My simple answer is to breathe.
Our bodies have a fantastic mechanism that is designed to keep us safe in dangerous situations. It’s called the sympathetic response and is often referred to as “fight or flight.” This evolutionary survival response was necessary when we regularly encountered predators as primitive humans. It provides us with the necessary adrenaline and blood flow to either engage in battle or run as fast as we can. The problem is that this response is triggered by stressful situations such as fighting with your partner, being late for work, or drunk Uncle Archie.
Luckily, the sympathetic response has an equal diametric called the parasympathetic response and is often referred to as “rest and digest”. These are the good times. This is when we feel safe, nurtured, and peaceful. When sympathetic is disarmed, parasympathetic begins to become dominant and this is why the breath is so important.
Many organs have both parasympathetic and sympathetic innervation, but most of these organs aren’t in our voluntary control. One thing that is in voluntary control is our breathing. Through the breath, we can break the fight or flight response and restore rest and digest. I honestly believe that most forms of structured breathing can have this effect but my favorite way to harness the breath is called box breathing and this is how you do it:
- • Excuse yourself to a warm quiet room (even a bathroom will work and bathrooms typically have locks on the door – a bonus!)
- • Sit with your back straight and your feet flat on the floor.
- • Exhale all the air out of your lungs on a count of 4
- • Hold with your lungs empty on a count of 4
- • Inhale deeply on a count of 4
- • Hold with your lungs full on a count of 4
- • Continue this for 4 minutes (or until drunk Uncle Archie starts banging on the door.)
Box breathing might help your stress response, but what about all that rich food and alcohol?
My favorite potion to accompany a day of debauchery is good ole fashioned Angostura bitters. If you are a cocktail connoisseur, you may already know about this aromatic accouterment. The very first herb in this decoction is the gentian root. Gentian root is a marvelous bitter herb that has been used for thousands of years to treat the effects of alcohol consumption. It’s no wonder why it’s a popular ingredient in cocktails, the antidote is added to the poison! This herb and also other herbs in the bitters also give it an aromatic quality which aids in digesting the richest of foods. My advice is to throw a bottle in your satchel and have a “bitters mocktail” one hour before Thanksgiving dinner, one hour after Thanksgiving dinner, and between alcoholic cocktails throughout the day. Recipe as follows:
- 8 ounces of seltzer water
- 3 dashes of Angostura bitters
- Squeeze of lemon or lime (or both!)
Finally, one piece of practical advice comes from the true-life experiences of Dr. Peacock. Why not also have a “Friendsgiving”. In my house, we have several. Almost every weekend between Thanksgiving and New Years Day we make time to have meals with our chosen family. There’s nothing like the warmth and familial bond of folks who have been deliberately invited into your life to counterbalance the folks who were assigned to you at birth.
I hope this helps. I wish you a healthy and happy Holiday season, Lefty.
In Good Health,
Dr. Christopher Peacock