One question I hear over and over: “How do I deal with the stress, anxiety or emotions that the holiday season brings without turning to food?”
The holiday season can be really stressful. Pair that stress with the abundance of holiday parties and all the food and alcohol you may be around, and it can be a recipe for emotional eating.Now don’t get me wrong, emotional eating is certainly not all bad. Because eating is emotional. Food is not just nutrition and fuel for our bodies; it is part of our history, our culture, our family. Food is something that is meant to be enjoyed for the taste and pleasure it brings us, not just for the vitamins, minerals or fiber it provides. Cooking, baking, and eating are all ways in which we connect with others, care for ourselves, and for the people we love.
But emotional eating can become a problem if:
- It’s your only coping mechanism.
- It’s not actually helping you to cope and process your emotions and stress.
- If you feel guilty and ashamed anytime you eat to cope with stress. That guilt creates a stress response and keeps you trapped in the vicious emotional eating cycle – You feel guilty and ashamed for emotional eating, so you continue to emotionally eat.
Before we dive more into that, let’s first talk a bit more about the importance of coping mechanisms. These are the strategies or activities that you use to deal with and process your stress and other emotions.
Positive coping mechanisms can include physical activity, sleep, reading, writing, drawing, getting outdoors, spending time with friends, doing chores and yes, eating. Food has an impact on the way we feel, which means it is a totally natural thing to use as a coping mechanism. And I’m not just talking about healthy foods here, but any food that helps you feel better. My go-to emotional eating foods are ice cream and Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal (which are even better when paired with a glass of red wine). But I just have learned how to consume these foods in small portions so I don’t derail myself from my goals.
Negative coping mechanisms can include drug or excessive alcohol use and dieting. Dieting is an all too common one because we are told that making our bodies smaller will lead to happiness, success, love, and acceptance. In reality, dieting and restricting food can do the opposite — take all the pleasure away from food and make us unhappy.
So while eating to cope with holiday stress isn’t the worst thing, if it’s the only coping mechanism you have this can be harmful.
If you find yourself frequently turning to food to numb your feelings and emotions, try some of these tips:
- Cultivate multiple coping skills. Come up with several different coping skills that you can call upon during times of stress or anxiety this holiday season. Coping mechanisms can fall into several buckets including connection, action, soothing or pleasure. Make a list of several different coping skills that you can call upon when needed. The skill you use may vary depending on the situation, and it will take some trial and error to figure out which work best for you. For example, my coping skills include:
- Connection: Calling my mom, going out to dinner with a friend or talking to my niece and nephew on FaceTime.
- Action: Going for a walk, lifting weights, taking a yoga class, having a good cry or doing the laundry (yes – chores count! It feels good to get them done!).
- Soothing: Listening to music, watching “Housewives,” or reading a book.
- Pleasure: The aforementioned ice cream, a glass of wine, a latte from my favorite coffee shop or wearing my favorite comfy sweater.
- Be intentional when you use food to cope with stress. When food is used to numb or avoid a feeling, eating becomes mindless, without enjoyment. This makes it an ineffective coping skill and won’t help you feel any better. Instead, slow down and pay attention. Make eating an active choice. Think about what food will make you feel better at that moment. Use all your senses to smell, taste and savor that food. This will help you use food and the act of eating in a positive way to feel better… without a side of guilt.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Take three minutes every morning or evening to write down three things you’re grateful for and at least one positive thing that happened that day. Try this for a week and I guarantee you’ll have a more positive mindset.
- Don’t skip meals. Skipping meals sets you up for fluctuating blood sugar levels, which can make the stress response even worse. Instead, aim to eat balanced meals every three to five hours to keep your blood sugar stable and your energy level up.
- Try meditation. Spending just a few minutes per day meditating or practicing deep breathing can help you feel calmer and lower your stress response. Meditation is simple and can be done anywhere. Try downloading an app like Headspace or Calm and listen to a short guided meditation.
- Listen to music. Music can have a relaxing effect on our minds and bodies, slowing down our pulse and heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and decreasing levels of stress hormones. When you’re starting to feel stressed or overwhelmed, turn on some of your favorite songs.
- Accept help. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, but strength. It’s not realistic to expect that you can do everything yourself, so reach out to your friends and family and ask for help when you need it.
- Learn to say ‘No’. With the holiday season in full swing, no doubt you’ll be invited to multiple parties, events and celebrations. Don’t feel like you need to say yes to all – prioritize which ones are the most important to you. If you’re saying yes because you feel like you should go, not because you actually want to attend, that is a good indication that you should RSVP no.
*Tips based on Alissa Rumsey Fitness and Wellness