Food is fuel for our bodies. But it’s also much more than that. Food is often featured in celebrations and family or religious traditions. But for some, food may be used to cope with emotions, serve as a distraction from stressful situations, or used as a way to fight boredom.

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is using food as a source of comfort. Many of us may have indulged in emotional eating from time to time. However, it can become a problem when it’s used as a primary coping strategy.

People who are emotional eaters are often seeking “instant gratification.” That, combined with easy access to food, makes it a quick and reliable coping strategy.

Emotional eating doesn’t actually solve problems and in fact can often lead to additional distress. For many, “comfort foods” are typically high in calories, carbohydrates, and sugar, which can lead to weight gain and other health issues.

Turning to comfort foods in this way can become a vicious cycle. For example, imagine that you have a stressful day at work. On your way home, you stop at your favorite bakery for a delicious cookie to “reward yourself.” Right away, the treat improves your mood and distracts you from the day’s events.

However, these feel-good sensations soon disappear, and you may start feeling regret and guilt for straying from your healthy habits. Once you arrive home, you may realize you’re already searching for another food to reduce the increasing stress from your workday and that cookie you ate during the drive. The cycle continues.

Holiday stress

The typical stressors of the holiday season can be a lot to manage. Traffic hassles, travel plans, inclement weather, shopping, and family parties can all be factors. Add in time with certain relatives who might push your buttons and efforts to watch your weight around holiday treats, and you’ve got a recipe for high tension.

Memories or a significant loss can also increase difficult emotions during the holidays. For the emotional eater, food plays the role of stress reducer, mood enhancer, and companion through a challenging time of year.

Avoiding emotional eating

It’s important to celebrate the holidays and not miss out on spending time with those you care about. To avoid emotional food choices, set boundaries with yourself and others to limit distress. These can either be proactive, meaning planned in advance, or reactive, such as a reaction to a situation.

To start, say “no” to events or invitations that are less important to you. This proactive approach allows you to prioritize the gatherings that are most meaningful. It’s also worth avoiding high-risk situations where treats are often available, such as the mall food court or the break room at work.

Reactive approaches include taking a “time out” to remove yourself from the stressful situation, at least temporarily. Take a walk or find a more pleasurable and relaxing activity to distract yourself. It’s also necessary to recognize when you’ve reached your limit and it might be time to leave an event.

Take care of yourself

Self-care is one of the most effective strategies to manage emotional eating during the holidays. While this time of year tends to be busier, carving out time for yourself is crucial. Start with these strategies:

  • Stick to your regular exercise routine, follow a balanced diet, and get plenty of sleep.
  • Anticipate situations that are more likely to cause stress or anxiety. Plan ahead for how you might cope with each of these situations, without food.
  • Do things to soothe yourself. Go for a walk, listen to gentle music, take a relaxing bath, light a candle with a calming aroma, or enjoy a warm mug of herbal tea.
  • Pack healthy snacks for situations that might trigger your comfort food cravings.

Most of all, enjoy the holidays!

Lifespan Psychiatry and Behavioral Health

Lifespan’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Services offer a full range of assessment and treatment options to address the mental, emotional and behavioral problems that occur throughout life.