Emotional Eating and the Holidays – Looking at Emotional Eating and Stress Management in a Different Way
The holidays can often sneak up on us, and so can holiday stress. On top of the stress of making travel plans, coping with family tension, and the financial strains of holiday shopping we also worry a lot about holiday foods. There are a lot of “helpful” websites out there that give advice about emotional eating during the holidays, but most of them are aimed at ways to maintain your diet and not gain weight. In my experience as a therapist specializing in the treatment of Eating Disorders, focusing just on emotional eating in terms of weight gain or weight loss is not enough. We need to look at what emotional eating really is and how it functions during the holidays. Understanding it can help us feel like emotional eating is more manageable and not such a scary, powerful thing.
1. ACKNOWLEDGE THE REASON WHY EMOTIONAL EATING EXISTS: Emotional eating happens for a reason, and it is a good reason. We all have emotional needs. It is part of being human. We come across stressful situations in our lives and we look for ways to meet those needs and cope with stress. Finding ways to meet those needs in healthy ways is much harder than it sounds. It is more common to look for ways to cope that make us feel good physically, which often involves using food. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but often it just is not enough. Filling an emotional need with a physical feeling often only helps in the short term.
2. LET GO OF BLAMING YOURSELF: After acknowledging that food is being used to fill an emotional need, the second and most important step is to have compassion for yourself. You are not a “bad person” for wanting to feel better. In the dieting world, it is seen as “bad” to “go off track” and eat “bad foods”. Let go of the idea that certain foods are bad and that you should feel guilty for breaking the “rules” of your diet. Instead, contemplate the reason why you are reaching for the foods you are craving. For most people, the holidays are a mixture of comforting, happy memories, stressful, difficult memories (especially if you have lost a loved one) and high expectations for a “perfect holiday”. Those are not easy things to deal with. Let yourself off the hook and try to let go of any unrealistic expectations that are causing you stress.
3. TAKE CARE OF YOUR STRESS DIRECTLY, NOT INDIRECTLY: If you are having a hard time during the holiday season, let yourself make your emotional needs a priority. Ways to directly deal with your stress is to talk about it, spend time with people who do not add to your stress levels, and schedule some time just for yourself. Sometimes just having a few brief moments of quiet time in a peaceful place can make a world of difference. The holidays can become so hectic and busy that we often put our own needs last. The less we directly deal with our own stress levels, the more we rely on indirect ways to cope, which can lead to using food, alcohol, or other ways to “escape”. Trying to escape our stress does not provide an adequate outlet for us to process our emotions. If you are having a hard time grieving the loss of a loved one around the holidays, it can be useful to look at the positive side of emotional eating. If a certain food reminds you of the person you have lost, let yourself enjoy those foods and remember your loved one. Combine this ritual with writing a letter to your loved one, writing in a journal, or talking with someone who understands how much you miss that person. Taking care of yourself is just as important as your other obligations this holiday season.
4. MAYBE I NEED MORE SUPPORT? For approximately eleven million Americans, emotional eating is part of an eating disorder (National Eating Disorder Association, www.nationaleatingdisorders.org). Eating disorders can range in severity levels and unfortunately eating disorders can be misunderstood and many people do not seek out the help that they need. If you feel like emotional eating is truly out of control or if food and weight is dominating your thoughts throughout the day, it is worth your time to talk to a professional who specializes in helping people with Eating Disorders. You can find an Eating Disorder specialist in your area through the website www.EDreferral.com.