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Navigating the Holidays and Mental Health

The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy, family, friends, and giving. Although everyone has their own unique traditions, one common theme in most all celebrations involves food. Food is essential to nourishing our bodies- something we all know- but it is easier said than done to pick and enjoy foods for those who struggle with body image, eating disorders, exercise compulsions, anxiety, depression, and other mental health diagnoses. The following guide is designed to help those who personally struggle with the things listed above or for their loved ones seeking to support them.

First, Debunking the Myths

There is an abundance of myths that are associated with food and/or mental illness. These misunderstandings are often highlighted by our culture. Winter break barely begins before gyms are advertising their New Year’s resolution discounted plans and new diets are springing up on social media. Myths surrounding food, exercise, body image, and mental health are not always commonly known and can be detrimental to your or your loved one’s health when navigating the holidays. The following are a few common myths and the truth behind them.

#1: Carbohydrates are Bad

Each macronutrient does something important for our bodies. This includes carbs! Carbohydrates are converted to glucose in our bodies. Glucose is the main fuel! Without carbs, you aren’t fueling your brain. Carbs are often depicted as the enemy, whether it’s a Keto diet ad on Pinterest or a weight loss video on Youtube. Low-carb diets are even changing our restaurants, with most now being able to swap out buns for either low-carb or carb-free options. As an individual ages and/or with certain medical conditions, the body may need more/less carbs for optimal function. That being said, for the average young adult carbs are not the bad guy and are no different on Christmas or Hanukkah than any other day of the year.

#2: Exercising Should be Everyone’s New Year’s Resolution

This myth comes in many forms. Whether you personally jump on the diet train every year only to “fail” or “give up” a few weeks in, notice the constant gym advertisements during the holidays, or believe that everyone would be better off if they started working out- it’s important for you to hear this. Exercising when done in a balanced way isn’t an issue, but not everyone needs to be picking up a membership come January. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 90-95% of college students that are diagnosed with an eating disorder have a gym facility they belong to. Additionally, there is a major link between exercise compulsion and various forms of eating disorders. The fact is, exercising is not helpful for all people to do at all points in their life. Even if you are someone who does not have an eating disorder, if the gym is not mentally helpful for you, seek help and pair down the workout sessions. No weight goal is worth being mentally unfit. 

#3: The Holidays are Joyous to All

While I hope everyone who reads this loves the holidays and has an amazing time celebrating, the fact is that the holidays simply aren’t amazing for everyone. Individuals who have anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, and other mental health diagnoses can struggle during this time. Also, the holidays can bring up memories and loss for those who have lost loved ones. It’s important to spread kindness and empathy during this time. If someone seems more bummed out, stressed, or just not themselves- reach out or lend an ear without judgement. It can go a long way to be understanding. 

#4: People Should Always be Able to Help Themselves

In an ideal world, we would all be perfectly healthy and happy. This isn’t an ideal world! Helping others is a part of being human and, although you may not know everything about what someone is going through, trying to be empathetic and helpful goes a long way. If you are struggling and feel guilty for not being able to do it on your own, here is your sign that you don’t have to. Therapists, friends, family, doctors, and even online resources all are here to help you. Feelings of sadness, guilt, pain, and anxiety shouldn’t be dealt with alone just as joy is rarely celebrated solo. We don’t get to choose every experience or emotion that comes our way. People cannot always “sleep it off” or “just go get help” because our minds and feelings are much more complex. Knowing that you deserve help and/or people can’t always fly solo will help you help others and yourself.

Coping Skills & Advice

Set Boundaries Ahead of Time

No matter what or who you’re worried about, setting boundaries ahead of time can help you speak up without feeling awkward or guilty in the moment. Know that you have the right to be treated with respect and the right to not feel guilty for asking for it. If you need to set a boundary with someone you’re close to, ask to talk in person and make sure to have an idea of what to say beforehand so you can keep the communication open and not one sided. If the person on the receiving end feels attacked or off guard, they may not be as receptive. Here’s an example of what you can do if you were setting a boundary about body comments with a family member:

“Hey (insert name), I wanted to talk to you about something. I’m excited to be off of school and home with you for the holidays and wanted to let you know that I’d rather not hear any comments regarding by body the next few weeks. They just aren’t helpful to me and, even when they’re well intended, I get anxious because of them. I just want to enjoy the break and spend quality time with everyone without worrying about my appearance or what others are thinking. Thank you for being understanding.”

The example above is a simple example that can be altered and/or used as a guide for setting a boundary with someone close to you. Keeping it focused on “I” statements allows the other person to not feel as though you’re attacking them but also clearly expresses how you feel. Mentioning the good things you’re excited for, happy about, and okay with are all ways to bring positivity into the conversation. Maybe a parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, or grandparent has a history of saying and bringing up things that aren’t helpful to your mental health. Whether it is about a past event, food, appearance, or even a huge exam right around the corner- it is okay to set a boundary ahead of time. If it is someone you do not know as well, even creating some distance (i.e. not sitting next to them at holiday dinner) is a less involved way to set a boundary, Chances are you’ll feel better for doing it. 

Have a Plan

Depending on the severity of the trigger or thing that is bothering you, it is a good idea to have a plan written down before you anticipate exposure to the unpleasant experience. While a handwritten plan is helpful because it gives you something tangible in that moment, it is also okay to use your phone notes. Include things that are specific to you such as what emotions and events usually lead to your needing of a plan (warning signs), list of five things that make you happy or are enjoyable that you can either do or think about, a place you can go to (if applicable, ex: Lucky Lab) that makes you relaxed, two to three people you can talk to, and one thing that is worth living for or your greatest value. Having a plan in advance to look back on during a troubling time can be helpful in pulling yourself out of it. It can also be a good tool to share with family/support system if you are comfortable. If you have a therapist, dietitian, psychiatrist, or other professional you can ring, write their number down as well.

Self-Care Before, During, and After

Self-care should be a part of your daily life, even if it is in small ways! Especially if the holidays are a challenging time for you, try and incorporate self-care before, during, and after a hard days or events. Taking care of yourself doesn’t have to be extravagant- listening to your favorite song, petting your dog, calling a long-distance friend, taking a bath, and even taking a nap are all examples of self-care. Find things that work for you and do them regularly. If you need something a little more or want to break your self-care cycle, invite your mom to get mani-pedis or go see a movie by yourself or with your closest friend. Write down a few of your go-to ideas so they can be easily remembered if you’re having a rough day.

For Support Systems: Being Understanding

Support systems for those with mental illness or going through a particularly hard time are extremely important, but it isn’t always easy to know what to do or say. Slipping up can be embarrassing and do more harm than good, but saying nothing at all can also be hurtful. As a supporter you may also feel some of their pain, too. Here is some advice.

Not Sure? Ask.

You can’t help if you don’t know how to help. Asking your loved one ahead of time what best supports them, what they need from you, or what does not help are all topics to get you started. Talking about it ahead of time is the easiest way and chances are anxiety/tension will not be as high, but asking in the moment is also okay. Don’t expect yourself to know everything or do everything perfectly, but also be sure to ask. Here’s an example:

“Hey (insert name), I wanted to ask you what I can do to help your anxiety this week. Let me know if there are things I can do or say ahead of time or in the moment to support you.”

Depending on your relationship, you might be doing better or know more than you think you do.

Get Educated

If your loved one has a mental illness, get educated about it! If your only exposure and education has been by them or pop culture, chances are you still have a ways to go. Movies, fictional books, and television often sensationalize issues and miss out on key details and if you only know about things through your loved one, chances are you’re still missing out on valuable information. Look up trustworthy websites, articles, books, and podcasts. Learning about someone’s mental illness not only shows that you care but it can also help you just by learning more about it. Here are a few resources to get you started:

Eating Disorders: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org, Life Without Ed and/or Goodbye Ed, Hello Me by Jenni Schaeffer, and @laurathomasphd on Instagram.

Anxiety: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtmlAnxiety Happens by John P. Forsyth, PhD and Georg H. Eifert, PhD, and @anxiety_wellbeing on Instagram.

Depression: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtmlhttps://www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/helping-someone-with-depression.htm

PTSD: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtmlhttps://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/helping-someone-with-ptsd.htm

Listen Without Judgement

Although it can be hard to not have your own opinions and judgements, it is a critical part of being in someone’s support system. You may want to practically shake someone who is insistent that their body isn’t beautiful or who doesn’t want to get out of bed, but they are having their own experiences in their own life/body. Listening without judgement does not mean you cannot offer them help or advice- and you should always intervene when you think they may harm themselves- but being empathetic is an important skill to being a good listener. Instead of “Just get out of bed! You can’t be that miserable,” try something like, “Is there anything I can do or anything you would like to talk about? If you would like to be alone, maybe you could help me make cookies/run an errand/etc. later. I’d love to have you.” If they aren’t in the mood to talk you can always sit next to them and read a book or bring them their favorite beverage and exit the room. Showing you care is usually not forcing your opinions and judgements onto someone else- even when it is difficult. When talking to them about how they are feeling, ask questions and show support. Ask for clarification, what they need from you, and if your responses are helpful to them. Don’t be offended if they aren’t! It is a learning process and some days are different than others. Being a good listener is a key to being a good supporter, but even this skill may take time. 

Final Thoughts

The holidays can be the best of times and the worst of times. Understanding and having plans, boundaries, and empathy for yourself is vital to ensuring that your time off goes as smooth as possible. For loved ones, non-judgmental communication and education are essential to making sure you are the best supporter you can be. Still, no matter who you are in the relationship at any given time, self-care should be a part of your life so you can keep taking care of yourself. These tips are by no means a comprehensive list but should be a step in the right direction. Here’s to taking care of ourselves and those we love this holiday season.

Featured Image Art Courtesy of Courtney Smith.

Places to Take Your Parents to Impress Them

Showing your family around UT is a must, but our campus is also in one of the coolest cities in America (not sponsored- I swear). Austin’s food scene is big, unique, delicious and probably the best way to get to know the city. Here are a few places to take your family that are sure to impress. These picks are in no particular order but are grouped based on their location to help you better plan your day.

Close to Campus…

Kerbey Lane (2606 Guadalupe St, Austin, TX 78705)

This true Austin classic (and their delicious queso) is practically on campus, making it an easy go-to option to bring your family to. Breakfast is served all day along with burgers, Tex-Mex, sandwiches and more. I’m personally a big fan of their french toast or, when I’m not in a breakfast mood, the Turkey & Avocado Club. They also offer accommodations for several dietary restrictions along with a kid’s menu which can be helpful when taking a group out to eat!

Torchy’s Tacos (2801 Guadalupe St St 5-b, Austin, TX 78705)

Torchy’s Tacos is another great introduction to Austin. With funky names for their tacos such as the “Tipsy Chick” and “The Wrangler,” Torchy’s captures the “Keep Austin Weird” slogan for sure. Not only are the tacos creatively named, but they’re delicious. By the way, if the cashier asks you if you want to “make it trashy,” just say yes- it means they’ll add queso. Always do that. 

Cold Cookie Company (2512 Rio Grande St, Austin, TX 78705)

Located in west campus, Cold Cookie Company is just a short walk from campus. That walk is perfect to get a little hot and need some ice cream to cool you down, too. The options are almost endless as you can have your ice cream in a cup, cone, as a float, shake, or in cookie sandwich form. Did I mention that EVERYTHING comes with a cookie of your choice? Oh yeah, it’s pretty great. 

South Congress…

Home Slice Pizza (1415 S Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704)

Pizza never fails to impress and satisfy, so you might as well take your family to this SoCo staple. Home Slice offers the classics as well as their own specialties. Sharing is easy with their pizzas, family style salad options, and subs. Can’t decide? They offer select pizzas by the slice too. 

Cafe No Se (1603 S Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704)

One of the many great things about Cafe No Se is that they serve brunch every single day from 7am-3pm. Freshly baked pastries, avocado toast, brioche french toast, sandwiches, and coffee are among some of the many options. If you can’t make brunch there is also dinner which begins at 3pm. Dinner is going to be a little more upscale and gourmet but still a delicious way to explore South Congress. Unlike some popular Austin spots, Cafe No Se allows reservations. Go online or use the OpenTable app to do this- it’s worth it. 

Amy’s Ice Cream (1301 S Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704)

If Amy’s isn’t on your Austin bucket list as you make your way through the next few years…you’re doing it wrong. Sorry, someone had to tell you. I myself was a skeptic until I tried it, but it really is worth the hype! There are over 350 flavors in the rotation along with several constant flavors such as coffee and Mexican vanilla, meaning that there are plenty of options. You can pick and choose your own crush-ins/toppings or you can choose one of their combos. You aren’t limited to just a scoop, either. Amy’s has floats, sundaes, cones, and pints for sale.

Barton Springs/Zilker Area…

Bouldin Creek Cafe (1900 S 1st St, Austin, TX 78704)

Unlike the other places on this list, Bouldin Creek Cafe is one hundred percent vegetarian and features plenty of vegan options. If breakfast is your jam, their menu features omeletts, plates, tacos, bagels and sweet options. For lunch there is a wide variety of salads and sandwiches, including an award winning veggie burger aka the Veggie Royale. 

P. Terry’s Burger Stand (404 S Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78704)

All Photos by Courtney Smith

Okay so yes there are other P. Terry’s locations but for the sake of the article and because this location is by Barton Springs and the Zilker area, this one gets the address shout out. P. Terry’s is an affordable, Austinite favorite. It’s also a crowd pleasing option if your family can appreciate a burger and fries combo with an old fashioned burger stand feel. P. Terry’s is also a good option if you are on the go while your family is visiting and need a quick, satisfying option.

Juliet Italian Kitchen (1500 Barton Springs Rd, Austin, TX 78704)

Modern and classic takes on Italian cuisine come together at Juliet Italian Kitchen. A nice patio area, luxe finishes, and free parking are just a few of the features that make this restaurant worthwhile… not to mention the handmade pasta. The menu is perfect for families because there are single portions as well as shareable portions that make it easy to try a little bit of everything. 

Juuuust South of the Capitol…

Moonshine Grill (303 Red River St, Austin, TX 78701)

Moonshine Grill has a menu that is sure to satisfy if comfort food is what you’re looking for. A few of their staples include chicken and waffles, fajita steak salad, baked macaroni, and the pimento cheeseburger. Want something sweet? I recommend the peanut butter mousse pie. Trust me, you won’t forget or regret it. Moonshine Grill also features a Sunday brunch buffet that, according to their website, is the “best brunch in Austin.” 

Irene’s (506 West Ave, Austin, TX 78701)

Irene’s takes the diner concept of classic breakfast, sweets, snacks, and platters and gives it an Austin makeover. The weekend brunch (Saturday and Sunday 10am-3pm) is a can’t miss with menu selections like Nutella toast, biscuits, and brioche french toast being too good to pass up. Their lunch and dinner menu is also delicious and features a wide variety of sandwiches, salads, and other entrees. Plus, if you’d like to snag a photo for the ‘gram before your family leaves, a cute neon pink sign featuring the restaurant is just outside and makes for a fun photo-op. 

Holy Roller (509 Rio Grande St, Austin, TX 78701)

Inspired by punk rock and featuring whimsical nostalgia, Holy Roller is well on its way to becoming an Austin classic. The restaurant has all of the things you could ask for: burgers, salads, appetizers, desserts, and a brunch–but all of it is executed really well. Be sure to check what the french toast of the day is when you go and if breakfast isn’t your jam, try their grilled cheese sandwich. 

La Condesa (400 W 2nd St A, Austin, TX 78701)

Located in the 2nd Street District, La Condesa is a mouthwatering option that puts you near a plethora of shopping options. A contemporary Mexican restaurant, La Condesa is just as fresh and modern as it is delicious. The chips and salsa comes with four different salsas- what could be better than that? Nothing! I recommend getting several options to share because it’s just so hard to choose between the tortas and tacos. They also feature a brunch which is a good way to get an early start shopping on 2nd. If you’re worried about time or crowdedness, make a reservation online or on the OpenTable app. 

Overall there are no shortages of amazing restaurants to try in Austin. Give your family a taste of the city by showing them some of the delicious, local flavors Austin has to offer. Be sure to take advantage of the city while you and your family have the time to explore it.