It's funny how the holidays can be both a time of great joy and a source of stress and anxiety. Maybe you can relate to that feeling. Sometimes, even for those of us who love the family time and winter traditions, the pressure of wrapping up projects, hosting relatives, and holiday planning can be challenging to handle.
Now top that with all the diet mentality stress that comes with this time of year. If you're still trapped in that kind of mindset, it's likely that being surrounded by some of your most favorite foods triggers some worries: What should I eat? How much should I eat? How can I make up for that meal? How can I say no to that delicious family pie?
Why Do We Stress Eat During the Holidays?
All of these thoughts trigger anxiety, guilt, shame, and ultimately stress. And with the temptation to just say "screw it, I'll start again on January 1st", many give in to the comfort of stress eating. That's not only an emotional resource but a body response too. It's well known that chronic stress can lead to appetite dysregulation.
We have talked about stress eating before (otherwise known as emotional eating). There's nothing wrong with it per se, but most people tend to use such as a strategy of mindlessness instead of mindfulness. When you engage in emotional eating like that, you're more likely to eat in a way that doesn't align with your body's wants, and that doesn't feel good afterward.
Yup, you just got yourself another tough emotion to handle, friend.
Not only that, but you'll be better equipped to handle stress if your toolbox consists of more than just food as a way to cope with stressful feelings. That's what this post is all about. Here are six tips to help you handle stress and stress eating during the holidays.
1. Be Active
Nope, that doesn't mean forcing yourself to stick with intense workouts throughout the season. I mean, if that's your kind of thing, by all means, go ahead and do it. But for many, a strict exercise schedule will just create more stress by 1) adding another thing you need to fit in your already crazy calendar of launches and celebrations, and 2) leaving you more depleted of energy.
Instead, be gentle and use movement as a way to respond to stress. Get outside in the fresh air for a walk, chase your kids in the yard, stretch a bit between meetings. Make it enjoyable and not another source of worry. And yes, that's right: that means not using exercise as a way to make up for larger meals. That brings me to tip number two.
2. Forgive Yourself
We all eat past our point of comfort sometimes. Even people who have been practicing intuitive eating for years have those days. That's because our body is continually changing and we're invariably learning something new about it. It's not your fault. And more than that, often it's the restrictive thinking around food that triggers that disconnect between you and your body.
If you feel you overate at a certain point, let it go. Do try to "make up" for it with further restriction or intense exercise. Remember: you're allowed to eat, to enjoy food, and most of all to learn from your cravings. You can only do that if you put an end to the guilt cycle. Keep your head up because it's key to self-compassion and getting through the holiday season.
3. Workout Your Brain
Just like your body, your brain needs movement too. Instead of letting it hard on the negative things and worries that lead you to stress eating, give it something nourishing to do. It's easy to become consumed by deadlines and planning this time of year. We see the 31st of December coming, and all we think about is the stuff still on our to-do lists.
To deal with worry and negativity, make a habit of putting your brain to work in more productive and relaxing ways, even if for just a few minutes every day. Take 10 minutes to read fiction, work on a puzzle, learn something new, or use mantras or affirmations for a quick meditation. Again, make it enjoyable and stimulating, and it'll help you feel refreshed when stress is creeping in.
4. Don't Skip Meals
Do not try to "save calories" so you can permit yourself to eat more later. Make sure that you're eating meals as you typically would, without skipping them. That also applies if you're jumping meals due to a packed work calendar, or because your family is driving you nuts with holiday preparations. If you starve yourself all day, you'll be more prone to overeating later in the day or the week.
When you give your body adequate nourishment, you're also making sure your energy levels remain steady throughout the day, without major sugar crashes. That's another smart way to stay on top of your game during the holidays. The more energized and vibrant you feel, the less impact stressful events will have on you and the less likely you'll be to seek food for comfort.
5. Don't Label Foods Good or Bad
Nearly every nutrition expert will tell you that labeling foods "good" and "bad" contributes to a poor relationship with food. You're probably so used to it that you don't notice it, but that kind of thinking creates needless food anxiety that contributes to your stress level.
You can eat anything in moderation, or without feeling like you're indulging in "bad behavior." Give yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever it is that you're craving during this holiday season. And remember that "what you're craving" can be both your sister's famous pecan pie or some hearty roasted root vegetables.
It all depends on what you need to feel your best at a given moment (and remember: feeling your best is about feeling both energized and vibrant, and happy and delighted).
6. Practice Mindful Eating
In a nutshell, Mindful Eating is about learning to pay attention to what you're eating. As we discussed earlier in this post, the chances are that when you're eating to cope with your emotions, you're doing so from a place of mindlessness and absence. That makes it harder to process your fullness cues, leaving you with that feeling of bloatedness and discomfort.
Mindless eating also makes it harder for you to derive any comfort from what you're eating. When you don't take your time to savor food thoroughly, it goes completely unnoticed by your brain, robbing you of the joy and vibrancy that comes with eating something you truly enjoy.
Here are a few pointers to help you practice mindful eating:
- Notice how you feel before, during AND after the meal. Pay attention to how your hunger and fullness signals shift with every bite. Ask yourself: Am I hungry? What do I feel like eating?
- Take a minute before you serve yourself to appreciate what's on the table. Pay attention to the colors and the smells in front of you. What are the different ingredients in this meal? What looks appetizing to you?
- Practice gratitude for the opportunity to enjoy delicious food (and good company, if you're eating with others). You don't need to be vocal about it, though it's also if you share this feeling with others. Just acknowledge it silently and smile.
- Take your first bite with your eyes closed. Focus on all the flavors, textures and smells you're experiencing. Be extra present with your this first taste of your meal.
- Recruit your senses every couple of bites. Put your fork down and notice what's in your mouth and on your plate. That's something you can do through the entire eating experience, from cooking to table.
When I say practice, I mean it. Mindful eating is a bit like meditation, and if you ever tried that you know that it takes getting used to. Try to have it least one conscious meal every day to create a habit of noticing those feelings and sensations.
To get started today, download the free checklist below:
Over to You
Those tools will help you navigate your holiday celebrations a bit more mindfully when it comes to food. The secret to success here is to resist the temptation to alienate yourself whenever things get a bit more stressful. Remain present with your meals, and enjoy them mindfully. That's how you'll avoid going into the trance state that stress eating causes. You can do this, friend!
What's your major trigger for stress eating during this time of the year? Which of these tips can you put to use today? Let me know in the comments, so we can brainstorm ways to avoid the added stress of overeating.
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One more thing, if you want to hang out with me and other smart women determined to feel and do their best, make sure to join the Food Freedom Tribe, our free Facebook group.