Life Without Limits, Episode 2: Managing Holiday Season Health Goals and Relationships with Dr. Alexandra Solomon

Life Without Limits, Episode 2: Managing Holiday Season Health Goals and Relationships with Dr. Alexandra Solomon

Habits such as sticking to a sleep routine, getting regular physical activity, or choosing food that aligns with your health goals require great care and thought during the holiday season. Factor in more time spent with family—and potential relationship conflict—and it opens us up for some hurdles around achieving our health goals.

We spoke with Dr. Alexandra Solomon, a clinical assistant professor at Northwestern University and a licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, to get her take on how to manage holiday season health goals and relationships in a most unusual year.

“Everything that has been true for years and years about what it means to spend time with family is true times 100 in this most extraordinary of years,” Dr. Solomon said about living in a high-stress world. “I think about this quote from spiritual teacher Ram Dass, who says ‘If you think that you’re a highly evolved person, go spend a week with your family.’”

Find out what Dr. Solomon means and learn some quick strategies for managing stress around your family and the holidays.

You can learn more and follow Dr. Solomon at:
Instagram: @dr.alexandra.solomon


Show Notes and Full Transcript

Dr. Solomon is the author of Taking Sexy Back: How to Own Your Sexuality and Create the Relationships You Want (New Harbinger, 2020) and Loving Bravely: Twenty Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want (New Harbinger, 2017). She also writes a column for Psychology Today and is frequently asked to talk about love, sex, and marriage with media outlets including The Today Show, O Magazine, The Atlantic, Vogue, and Scientific American.


Host: This is Life Without Limits, the One Drop podcast that gives you the tools, inspiration and support to challenge your limits. We talk with experts across all areas of health to open up more possibilities for you. Lean on us as you step outside your comfort zone to work your way toward better overall health and a life without limits.

Kim Constantinesco: Welcome back to another episode of Life Without Limits, the One Drop podcast that dives deep with health experts to give you the support you need to achieve your health goals. I’m your host Kim Constantinesco and on today’s show we have Dr. Alexandra Solomon, who is a clinical assistant professor at Northwestern University and a licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. She’s a best-selling author, a regular contributor to Psychology Today, and she’s been asked to talk about navigating love and relationships with media outlets such as The Today Show, O Magazine, The Atlantic and Scientific American. Today we’ll be talking about how to navigate family systems and relationships during the holiday season as it relates to choices around your health. Dr. Solomon, thank you for joining us today. It’s such an honor to have you on.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: It’s lovely to be with you.

Kim Constantinesco: So before we jump into talking about health in the holiday season, tell us a little bit about the work that you do on a daily basis.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Sure. So I have been in this field for a couple of decades now and what I love most is that I get to wear lots of hats over the course of a week. So I have a busy practice where I work with individual adults and couples doing therapy. I write, both articles and I’ve written a couple of books. And I’m active on social media. And I do podcasts like yours where, basically the heart of my work is helping people understand the power of relationships and understand how to work with themselves—their thoughts; their feelings; their behaviors—so they can show up for their relationships with authenticity and curiosity and care.

Kim Constantinesco: Right, and especially this time of year, relationships really elevate themselves. During the holiday season, especially this year when we are in a global pandemic and people are highly stressed. So, the holiday season is a time when we’re around those people who often illicit some of our strongest emotions, whether they’re good or bad. And I want to start off by talking about the fact that so many of us have health goals that require some extra thought and care, especially during the holiday season, whether we’re trying to make better food choices, stick to a sleep routine, cut back on alcohol or get regular physical activity. So you add more time spent with family and friends, especially during this stressful time with COVID going on, and it opens us up for some hurdles around achieving our health goals.

So let’s talk about why our loved ones often give unsolicited advice around our health choices during the holiday season and some strategies for how to handle that.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: {Laughs} This is a great, yes, this is a great question. And I think that what you’re highlighting is that everything that has been true for years and years about what it means to spend time with family is true times 100 in this most extraordinary of years. I think about this quote from spiritual teacher Ram Dass who says, “If you think that you’re a highly evolved person, go spend a week with your family.”
{Both laugh}

What that quote speaks to is that, you know, it doesn’t matter if we are 18 or 38 or 58, when we are with the people who raised us, who we were little people with, so when we’re with our parents, our siblings, aunties, uncles, grandmas, grandpas; those people, you know, they hold our stories in a way that nobody else on Earth really holds. And because they were the people that we were little with, they are the people that we are most likely to begin to feel {laughs} once again like we are awfully little in terms of little meaning struggling to find our voice, unsure where our boundaries are, feeling like expectations are muddy, boundaries are muddy. And so all of that gets kicked up when we are with the people who have known us for our entire lives.

And I want to say, as we kind of unpack this, that I think many of us are not going to be with those people, right. There’s going to be an absence that we, you know, the guidelines are pretty clear around certainly for Thanksgiving, likely for the December holidays as well, that we really are best served by being only with the people in our household. So there may be this way that we have been kind of exasperated about oh boy, it’s going to be a bunch of family time. I think what we’re being confronted with right now is the grief around potentially not having that family time. For as ambivalent as we perhaps were about what it means to be in that family system, to not be able to be with our family in the way that we have been, because our health really depends on it, is another kind of grief, and a kind of grief that comes on the heels of a year that has been full of, as you say, grief and stress and a lot of mental energy going into the choices that we make every single day; like the heaviness of thought of, you know, am I going to make this choice or that choice and weighing the risks and the benefits is absolutely exhausting for so many of us.

Kim Constantinesco: Yes, you bring up so many great points there. Let’s circle back to what you said about when we do spend time with those who are closest with us, those who have raised us, been around us our whole lives, it sort of brings up the little person in us. And we sort of maybe revert back to how we were behaving or thinking or feeling as children. So what advice would you give to folks who are maybe in that position over the holidays around their own health choices?

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Um-hum [affirmative], yes. So a piece of it is doing some self reflection, you know, right now in advance of the holidays. Doing some self reflection, and I really like people to do this either writing as a journal entry or typing on a computer or writing a note in our phones or even just kind of a quiet, like, reflective walk. And really, like, reflecting on when I was young and I felt overwhelmed by feelings or overwhelmed by stress, what were the ways that I coped. And really getting some clarity around, like, what was my role in my family? What was expected of me? How did I handle that? I mean I call it when I’m teaching this stuff or talking about it I call it, like, our love template; like that sort of original template of who was I in my first family? What were the ways that I coped? What were the things I struggled with?

Because the clearer we are on the places we’re at risk of going inside of ourselves, the behaviors we’re at risk of doing, that guides us to, okay, so what are the kinds of safety measures and plans I want to put in place now? So for example, if my role in my family was to be the perfect child and it was expected that I would have straight As, that I wouldn’t take up a lot of space, and the way that I coped with that is that I would whatever; sneak a, you know, box of Oreos into my room late at night and eat, you know, lots of sugar on my own because I had to kind of keep up this façade of the perfect kid over here and then I would cope by being alone and eating on my own. I have to understand that that may get activated in me. Like, I may have all kinds of ways now where I manage my tendency towards emotional eating, but most likely it’s going to be a lot harder to manage my tendency towards emotional eating when I am with the very people that I was with when I first established that less than healthy habit.

And so the awareness, like that’s what I’m at risk of doing, I think that awareness is helpful. And then just a ton of compassion that of course when I was a little person with big feelings that was what I had to do. I didn’t have an entire toolbox of strategies. But now {laughs} I’m a big person and now I do have some other ways of managing my feelings besides just trying to eat my feelings away, for example. So it’s that combination of curiosity and compassion that helps us then make different choices and plan for ourselves from a place that is kind of grounded and clear.

Kim Constantinesco: I’m so glad you brought up that example. I mean how easy is it for us to reach for something sweet or savory when we want some comfort in our lives? Can you offer some specific tools around emotional eating and what compassion might look like, and just some strategies for how to navigate that?

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Um-hum [affirmative]. I think there’s a both/and. I think there’s a place where two things are true at once. I think that we do need to have compassion around that I may be a bit more at risk of eating past the point of fullness during this time. And so there’s a space of needing to accept that. And a space of trying to make different choices that are from a place of love, not fear, right.

So there’s two ways I can exercise. I can say to myself if you don’t exercise today you’re going to feel like crap and you’re going to gain weight; da-da-da. I can sort of fear myself or shame myself into exercise. Or I can love myself into exercise. I can say listen; put down the work. Close the computer and get up and move your body and you’re going to feel so much better. I can use love to motivate myself or I can use shame to motivate myself.

And so we can approach the sort of overeating dynamic in the same way. We can love ourselves into not overeating. We can say listen; my darling, dear self {laughs} it may feel good in the moment, but you’re going to feel lousy afterwards. And it’s not a loving thing for us to do to ourselves, so let’s lovingly step away from the kitchen, make a cup of tea or, you know. I think there are ways we can love ourselves into different choices rather than using fear. Because I think in some ways fear puts us at greater risk of the very behavior we’re afraid of doing, right. If we’re saying, like, don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, whatever we say don’t do is going to get supercharged. It’s going to feel more secretive. We’re going to create the conditions of secrecy and shame and acting out. Versus saying to ourselves, like, listen; we have other things we can do. There’s going to be another meal tomorrow. There’s going to be other – there are other ways we can handle these strong feelings so we can love ourselves into different choices.

Kim Constantinesco: Absolutely. And I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about strong feelings. There’s so much research out there that shows setting boundaries with those that we love and care about can be incredibly healthy. But it’s definitely a hard thing to do. So can you talk about why setting boundaries is so important for your health?

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Absolutely. Yes, and I think that this year of all years there are some really complicated boundary challenges. For example, let’s say the whole family has decided to get together in a way that I don’t feel comfortable getting together. Am I going to show up there and feel resentful and feel unsafe and make snide comments, or am I going to say I love all of you and I am making a different choice for myself?

And what happens when we don’t put up a boundary and – you know, boundary work starts by noticing what’s happening inside our bodies. And learning, like, what is it that a loving no feels like inside our bodies? So I know that when somebody asks something of me and my deep truth is no, but I feel like I should say yes because if I say no I’m worried about disappointing people, I’m going to rock the boat, people may be disappointed in me, I need to pay attention to what that feels like in my body. When I say yes, and my deep truth is no, I feel it right in my gut. It feels like a twist inside {laughs} my intestines, really. Like, I can, you know, physiologically I have this feeling of twists inside my body. And that’s how I know I have just allowed my boundary to be stepped over, right. I said yes to something that is very clearly a no, so my body is communicating to me that I am out of my own alignment.

When we do that it creates – I mean the neurophysiology of it is it creates this, like, cascade of stress hormones in our bodies, because we know darn well that we’re doing something that doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t – it’s fueling resentment inside of us. So we’re creating the conditions of a cascade of cortisol flowing through our bodies. We are likely to then, you know, do the thing, whatever, whether it’s showing up at Thanksgiving dinner or taking on this extra project at work that doesn’t make any sense for us to be taking on, we’re going to be doing that project with or showing up at that place with resentment and anger and hostility; none of which is good for our health, and it’s not good for our relationships.

But it’s far better to say no and establish a boundary and deal with that discomfort than it is to override it and end up being resentful and bitter and making snide comments and being passive-aggressive; all of the things. Because it’s going to get communicated one way or another, you know. So it is healthier to just say listen, I can’t lovingly show up. I’m not going to be any good for anybody in this space. So I’m going to say no. I think some of us associate, you know, those of us who have been people pleasers associate boundaries as somehow it’s hostile or it’s rude. It’s loving. It’s loving to say if I can’t be in your space with a heartfelt presence, then it’s better for me to not be in your space.

Kim Constantinesco: And to me it sounds very similar to working a muscle, right. So the more often that we set boundaries, the more comfortable we become doing so. And that practice can grow and grow.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Absolutely. That’s a great analogy. And for many of us we can’t even get to the point of flexing the muscle until we start to recognize how very, very, very often we allow ourselves to be out of our own alignment; how very, very, very often we self abandon in order to keep the peace; how very, very often we end up being the martyr who is depleted and exhausted because we can’t say no to anybody. So I think we can’t even get to the piont of flexing the muscle until we recognize oh yes, I think that {laughs} I’ve got a problem here.

And then you’re right, it is trying out the no and watching how actually everybody survived it. You know? I think we can get these very fear based stories going of like everyone’s going to be disappointed and nothing will continue and I will be rejected and the world will stop spinning on its axis. And then when we try out the boundary and everybody survives, that is the flexing of the muscle and it becomes that much easier and that much easier and that much easier.

Kim Constantinesco: Absolutely. There’s life after the “no” or after the “yes.” And that definitely gives a lot of hope.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: That’s right.

Kim Constantinesco: Great, so to wrap up our show, what are few overlooked health habits that would be helpful to engage in daily during the holiday season to benefit you both physically and emotionally?

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: One of the platforms that I’m really active on is Instagram. And last night I wrote a post that was about horizontal thinking, which is a term that was coined by Liz Gilbert who wrote Eat Pray Love. And the time between turning off the lights and falling asleep is one time when we’re at risk of horizontal thinking. Horizontal thinking means that kind of thinking we do either as we’re trying to fall asleep or when we first wake up in the morning, the time between when we wake up in the morning and the time we get out of bed. And horizontal thinking generally sounds like either a {laughs} montage of all of the embarrassing, horrible, regrettable things we’ve done in our lives, all of the ways in which we’ve been mistreated in our lives, all of the fears about what might happen next. Horizontal thinking is when our thinking goes in all of these incredibly unhelpful directions that are all dead-ends.

And so an overlooked health practice is putting some intention around the falling asleep ritual and the waking up in the morning ritual. And what I loved about Liz Gilbert’s thoughts on this, like, waking up in the morning, which I think some of us don’t even notice how there’s that period of time between when we first wake up and when we get out of bed that we are at risk of having all kinds of troubling thoughts. Her strategy that she developed was to just say if you are awake enough to be beating yourself up or future tripping, like worrying about what’s going to happen next, you are awake enough to get vertical, {laughs} get out of bed and start moving. So that’s a health habit I think is really important is paying attention to how am I falling asleep and how am I waking up.

And then the other one that I think is so important for those of us who are quarantined with spouses, with kids, with parents where we’re sort of quarantined in a family system and we’re doing this 24/7 togetherness that so many of us have been doing now for many, many, many months, an overlooked health habit is to do an intentional reset. Very often I’m finding with my couples and individuals in therapy, friends, myself; we aren’t taking breaks until we’re at the breaking point. And so a really important health habit is to recognize I need some space.

And {laughs} I wrote last week on Instagram about what I call Subaru self care. So I will go get a Starbucks in the morning and I will just sit in my car for a bit, because there’s nobody around. It’s a contained, quiet space away from my spouse and away from our teens, whom I love, right. I would go to the ends of the Earth for these people, and I need space from them. So an overlooked health habit would be creating some intentional resets in your day; some time where you step away from all the togetherness, collect yourself, calm your mind, move your body, and then you can reenter the system with a bit more calm, levity, humor and ease.

Kim Constantinesco: These are such excellent tips. And I’m wondering about how long do you really need to reset for?

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: {Laughs} Until you feel like your tongue is no longer sharp.

Kim Constantinesco: Excellent. Dr. Solomon, it’s been wonderful to have you on. Before we go, can you tell the One Drop community where they can go to learn more about you and receive some of your regular tips around managing important relationships?

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Sure. My website is the easiest place to learn more about me and about my work, so it’s And I mentioned social media, and we are in January, early January we’re going to launch an eCourse which is called “Intimate Relationships 101: Building Relational and Sexual Self Awareness.” And this is a foundational, comprehensive course about healthy intimate relationships based on my 20 years of research and teaching and writing about love. So that is we’re doing a presale right now and the course will launch in early January.

Kim Constantinesco: Amazing. That sounds like such a timely course. Thanks so much for coming on Life Without Limits, Dr. Solomon. Stay tuned for more episodes and more health experts ready and willing to share their tips to help you achieve your health goals. We’re in this together.

Host: Thank you for listening to Life Without Limits. If you liked this episode, tell a friend. We’re here to help you take back your time, power and life so you can live to your fullest potential.

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Kim Constantinesco
Dec 10, 2020

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