Try These Relaxation Techniques Before Meals to Ease Anxiety

This article is a guest post by Erin Culver. You can check out more of her content here.

It’s safe to say most of us have been there- after a long day of work or school, we rush home feeling starving and eat everything in sight while barely breathing between bites. Or maybe we eat quickly because we feel anxious about our food choices and how much we are “allowed” to consume. 

Meals can be a stress-inducing time whether you are in recovery or not. Many factors can add to the anxious nature of meals, like thoughts about what you should eat vs. what you want to eat, how long it will take to prepare a meal, being busy with work, and struggling to find nutritious foods that your kids will want to eat too. Either way, many of my own meals came and went quickly, my spoon on a swivel, and I didn’t end up tasting what I ate. Plus, it left me feeling stuffed and nauseous, making me want to restrict my intake in the coming days to “make up” for it. 

Food and meal anxiety are real and common, and they prevent many people from being able to relax and enjoy a delicious meal with friends and family. People often ask me how they can stop feeling so anxious around food, especially before meals, and I usually direct them to the relaxation techniques we will be discussing in this post today. These techniques can help slow your mind, resulting in a more leisurely and relaxed dining experience. They work well in the short term, giving you a bit of peace right away. For long-term food anxiety help, it is best to reach out to a trusted mental health professional, especially if you are in recovery from disordered eating. 

The first few techniques I like to use involve slow, steady breaths. Meditation is an excellent tool to use to feel more grounded and present, though the idea of sitting still for minutes or even hours a day can feel overwhelming. Instead, these techniques are short and sweet, and they don’t require you to sit on a cushion for long bouts. If you just plain aren’t a fan of breathing exercises, there is one more technique at the bottom that doesn’t require any altered breathing on your part, but it can still help you slow down before and during meals. 

Box Breathing

I call this technique box breathing because all four sides of it are even, and I visualize a square or box while I’m performing it. This method consists of a slow breath in for four counts, releasing it slowly for four counts, breathing in for four more, and releasing it slowly for four more. While I do this, I like to draw a square on a piece of paper, where I draw the first line going up with an in breath, a line to the right for the out breath, a line going down for the second in breath, and a line going left for the last out breath, creating the box I visualize. 

This connects the act of breathing with a physical movement from a pen on paper. It’s very soothing, and I find that it significantly slows my mind down and puts me in a more tranquil headspace. This technique is also great because it doesn’t feel too taxing on the respiratory system. Some breathing techniques, like the next one, require a long stretch of breath-holding, which can get uncomfortable and make people feel panicky. This one is nice and light.

It is very important, however, to make sure they are slow breaths in and out. A quick count of “1234” while breathing instead of “1… 2… 3… 4…” can actually make you feel even more anxious. They say slow and steady wins the race, and it also eases the anxiety. 

5-7-8 Breathing

The 5-7-8 breathing technique is another great exercise to do before meals, and I find that it slows down my heart rate more noticeably than others. This exercise involves an inhale for five counts, a hold for seven counts, and a controlled exhale for eight counts. I usually use this technique when I notice myself getting worked up, I’m stuck in a negative thought loop, or I am nervous about a presentation or work assignment. I also use this regularly if I can’t stop thinking about something as I’m trying to fall asleep. 

After I complete this series of steps three or four times, I feel like a whole new person. A word of caution, though, this exercise can leave you feeling a bit light-headed if you aren’t used to deep breathing exercises. Start slow, and play with shorter durations if you need to. 

Breathing GIF

Some people struggle with breathing while counting, and they’d rather have someone or something else keep track of the counts for them. Here is a breathing GIF that is slow, steady, and mild, and it likely won’t make you feel winded. 

Follow along as many times as you need, but even just ten or twenty seconds of it can make a huge difference in managing in-the-moment anxiety. If you want to make sure you use this GIF before eating to set yourself up for a relaxing meal, create a reminder on your phone that includes the link to the GIF. This tip is great even outside of meals. Maybe you could set a reminder with the link to go off every couple of hours during the day, giving you a nudge to take deep breaths and relax. 

If you don’t like this particular GIF for some reason, there are plenty like this available all over the internet and on wearable devices like Apple Watches. 

Showing Appreciation

While I was in undergrad, we were always encouraged to take a moment before a meal to think about where the food we would be eating came from. For example, if you were having a meal consisting of mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and steak, you would think about all the time, effort, and resources the farmers put into your meal. Farmers painstakingly grew the potatoes, the flour for the macaroni, and the corn to feed the animals, and the animals themselves made great sacrifices to give you cheese, milk, and steak. Maybe those foods were shipped from another region or imported from another country, so they went through miles of transportation to make it to the grocery store and ultimately end up on your plate. 

I like this exercise because gratitude is known to help people feel less anxious and more positive, and because it allows you to pause, yet think through a series of steps. Some people have difficulty focusing on breathing, but they can think through all the events that were required to bring this meal to their home. 

Final Thoughts

For those of you that feel anxious before and during meals, or you simply notice yourself eating your food quickly for no apparent reason, taking 30 seconds out of your day to do one or a few of these exercises can help you slow down and return to the moment. Being relaxed at meal times can help you taste and enjoy your food more, and it may help you become more open with trying new foods or returning to other you may not have eaten before recovery. Best of all, these exercises are free to do, and nobody has to know you are doing them. You really have nothing to lose! 

Featured image courtesy of Unsplash.

All content on RecovRoad is based on personal experiences, research, and ideas. Please do not repost/share without credit and be aware that nothing on this blog takes the place of professional help. This is also a formal trigger warning: content about and relating to eating disorders may be triggering to survivors. Please see the “RESOURCES” tab, call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 800-931-2237, and remember to take care of yourself.

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