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How To Cope With Stress Eating During The Holidays

It's the most wonderful time of the year! Or is it? Your to-do list just got longer than life, it seems like all you do is go to holiday parties where you're surrounded by indulgent food which induces feelings of worry [of over-eating and expanding waist
Nov 24, 2017 | Rachel Molenda

It's the most wonderful time of the year! Or is it?

Your to-do list just got longer than life, it seems like all you do is go to holiday parties where you're surrounded by indulgent food which induces feelings of worry [of over-eating and expanding waist lines] and shame. It's impossible to say "no" because, hello, FOMO – and there are people to please. On top of that, you're blowing your bank account on Christmas gifts which leads to financial stress, you have to get a tree, decorate it, decorate your home for the guests you'll be entertaining and make sure your home is spick and span for when everyone arrives.

Woof! No wonder people turn to stress eating during the holidays, especially with the copious amounts of food that's constantly around that we know can bring us instant relief and pleasure. But it doesn't have to be this way, as in, stress-eating doesn't have to be the solution.

Especially because studies show that despite the instant relief emotional eating brings, the consequences of emotional eating (guilt, shame and physical discomfort) cancel out any form of relief that may have appeared for a brief moment.


It's in our best interest to look into other strategies to cope with stress during the holidays other than food. Also, because we WANT to enjoy the holidays as stress-free as possible, don't we? I can assure you, you can!

The reason people stress eat, or emotional eat, is to cope with an uncomfortable situation or emotion that they may not have the tools to cope with otherwise. I always remind clients of this when we're working together because it's so easy to fall into the trap of beating ourselves up for stress eating. But if we look at it from the stand point that, maybe we just haven't learned the strategies or tools to cope with that uncomfortable emotion yet, we can be a bit more compassionate with ourselves. 

Not to mention, when we're in a state of stress, we produce more cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone secreted by our adrenal glands when we're in a state of stress (or fight or flight) which remains elevated in our system until the stress period ends, which has been linked to increasing our appetite hormones as well.

So if you're wondering why you often feel the urge to turn to food when you're stressed, don't be so quick to point fingers at yourself for not having "self control" or "will power". Recognize that your body's biological cues have simply taken over!

So what exactly can we do to cope with stress, other than food, during the holidays? All of these things – the entertaining, the food, the to-do's (aka "the triggers" of our stress eating) – aren't exactly going to go away, but can we find a better way of coping? You bet we can! 

The first thing you'll want to do is to start bringing awareness to your stress-eating habits by identifying what stressors in your life are currently triggering your reactive behaviour.

Examples of stressors can include:

  • Financial stress
  • Last minute shopping, or the self-induced pressure to find the "perfect gift"
  • Not being able to stick to your healthy eating plan
  • Too many committments and not enough "me" time
  • Having to entertain and host a large group of people
  • Family drama or disputes
  • Loneliness
  • Fear of weight gain

That's just to name a few. I'm sure you can add more to the list. But like I mentioned previously, it can be challenging to simply make these stressors disappear. But what we can do is develop alternative strategies with fewer consequences to help us to cope and prevent stress-eating from arising in the first place.

Strategies To Cope With Stress Eating During The Holidays

Practice self-compassion

Nothing good ever comes out of talking negatively to ourselves. If anything, it makes us feel worse and pushes us into a downward spiral of feeling not good enough. But what if we started to learn to talk nicely to ourselves instead? This isn't the easiest thing to do and it may feel a bit forced at first but it's all about exercising that muscle.

A great way to go about that is by introducing replacement thoughts where you transform a negative thought into a positive thought. An example of this might look like "I hate my legs, they're so big" (Negative Thought) and replacing it with "I am SO appreciative of my strong legs that allow me to move, run, climb and feel AWESOME" (Positive Thought).

The reason why it's important to be mindful of this, especially during the holidays, is because we tend to be more critical of ourselves this time of year. We might find ourselves in more fancy attire or dresses and may not feel as good about ourselves knowing how many more indulgent foods we're consuming, which can often lead to feelings of guilt and shame, resulting in stress-eating or emotional eating. But if we practice self-compassion and be more gentle with ourselves, we can remove the stress of feeling the need to look a certain way.

Manage Stress Through Nutrition & Lifestyle

This might've been one of the greatest things that I learned in nutrition school (because yes, I have a tendency to be a bit of a stress ball, but I like to consider myself a recovering stress ball!) But yes, we can actually manage some stress through nutrition and lifestyle factors.

A great way to manage stress through nutrition is by emphasizing adaptogens in the diet (which I've wrote about on Joyous Health before – you can find the article here) either by drinking an adaptogenic tea, like Holy Basil, or putting herbs like Ashwagandha powder in your smoothie. Taking an adrenal-supportive supplement may also be helpful if you're in need of more therapeutic healing. It's not something you need or will want to take all the time, but even taking one course (i.e. one bottle as per the dosage on the label) during the holidays will make a world's difference in how you handle stressful situations during the holidays. Like always, I would recommend speaking to your natural health care practitioner about this before incorporating it into your routine though.

You might also want to incorporate stress-reducing lifestyle habits like meditation, yoga, deep breathing or positive affirmations.

It's important to choose a lifestyle habit that resonates with you, to ensure you actually stick with it, and then continue to practice that as we have to exercise that muscle so these stress-relieving habits start feeling more natural to us. 

I will say that, while adaptogens, supplements and these lifestyle habits are very effective at helping you cope with stress [and stress-eating], they will not solve what's causing the stress in your life. At one point, it may be more beneficial for you to pin point what's at the root of your stress and devising a plan to remove it or manage it.

Don't Forget About "Me" Time

Often when we feel like we don't have enough time for ourselves (which is very common during the holidays when we're stretched thin amongst busy schedules), stress shows up and manifests in various ways, including emotional eating. But even with a jam-packed schedule, it's important to make sure you continue to carve out time for you.

You may even have to find peace with saying "no" (especially to things that feel like a drag or an obligation).

During a period of time that demands a lot of your energy, it's important to protect your energy as much as possible by not sacrificing your "me" time, be it a walk in natureor your morning meditation and journalling. It also means saying no to things you genuinely don't want to do, as the opposite – saying yes to things you don't want to do – is soul-sucking and draining, and you'll know this if you've ever done this before. I think we're all raising our hands on that one, right? Haha

Intervene The Stress-Eating Moment

If you're reading this, you may have already identified yourself as an emotional eater or a stress-eater, which is actually great because it means you've done the first step which is bringing awareness to your stress-eating habits. Next, I want you to practice intervening the stress-eating moment when you're in the midst of it, by stopping asking yourself:

"If I'm not hungry, what other need am I trying to satisfy?"

Because that's essentially what emotional or stress eating is – we're trying to compensate for a need that isn't being fulfilled on another level. Perhaps you actually feel lonely, or you're lacking fun in your life or you're in need of some R&R. Sometimes that's enough to stop us in our tracks while we're turning to food to cope. It may involve taking some deep breaths to check in with yourself, but over time, after exercising that muscle more (yes, there's a theme here and yes, you are going to be SO mentally & mindfully strong after this!), you will be able to identify the root issue and find a solution with greater ease.

Release The "All Or Nothing" Mentality

When we're in the "all or nothing" mentality, there's no room for flexibility. An example of the "all or nothing" mentality is "I can't have chocolate for 7 days" and in the event that you have a square of chocolate, it's game over. Here's the thing: when we put this kind of pressure on ourselves to be "perfect' and to have the "perfect diet", we're setting ourselves up for failure. That one bite makes us feel like we failed and usually makes people throw in the towel, promise to "start fresh on Monday" and then overeat or binge on food.

Stress-eating can be exacerbated by the same mentality; once you start, you might think "oh, what the heck – I've already done the damage, may as well just call it quits and start fresh later on." Instead, give yourself permission to have that square of chocolate and simply move on. You will likely feel far less obsessed about food as a result and be able to go about your day.

Pulling It All Together ...

I totally understand that this isn't something that can be resolved overnight, but it's something we can start bringing into our consciousness and being mindful of. I also want to remind you to be gentle with yourself during the holidays (and EVERY DAY!) As you begin to practice and incorporate these tips into your life, you might find that you continue to stress eat from time to time.

I want to remind you that that is OKAY! This takes time, but the difference is that now you can bring more mindfulness to when you are stress-eating and check in with yourself more actively to see what you need. Instead of thinking that you "screwed up", approach it with curiosity like, "Hmm ... That was interesting that I felt the need to turn to food to cope with that uncomfortable emotion. I wonder what I must've been experiencing at the time that I might not have had the skills or tools to cope with the situation." This will only become easier and make more sense the more you practice it, but trust that it takes time :)

Happy holidays, everyone!

What do you find is your biggest challenge during the holidays? What's one thing you can do to alleviate that challenge or stressor?

Sumbul   •   December 1, 2017

Hey Rachel..You did an excellent job.Highly appreciable post.Thank You..Keep up the good work. doctoriduniya

Rachel Molenda   •   December 1, 2017

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