A psychologist recommended strategy for managing emotional eating during the holidays.

Conquering Cognitions

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I love the holiday season, but it can be stressful.

There are constant demands on our time like cooking, shopping, cleaning, and coordinating holiday events. It can be exhausting.

When feeling overwhelmed, I often get hungry, and I usually want something sweet to satisfy my craving. If there is too much stress and easy access to lots of sweet treats, this can quickly become a problem.

A dash of stress and a pinch of pressure is a recipe for emotional eating.

Am I Hungry or Stressed?

There are three main types of hunger: real, associated, and emotional.

When you are experiencing real hunger (physical hunger), your body tells you it is time to refuel. This type of hunger increases gradually, and a variety of food options will satisfy it. It is often accompanied by physical symptoms like abdominal discomfort, a growling stomach, and diminished energy and focus.

Ideally, you should only eat when you are experiencing real hunger.

Associated hunger is when you eat based on environmental triggers. Some examples include buying popcorn at a movie theater or snacking on food at a party, whether you are hungry or not. You eat because of the environment rather than actual hunger.

Emotional hunger is paired with an upsetting feeling or stress. This type of hunger appears more suddenly, and you crave specific foods. Eating is for comfort rather than fuel, and this hunger is difficult to satisfy.

Break the Cycle of Emotional Eating

Step one: Why are you eating?

To only fuel your body during real hunger, you need to pay attention to physical signs that it is time to eat. If you find yourself consuming food in the absence of real hunger, what is motivating your eating behavior?

  • Are you eating because you are bored?
  • Are you mindlessly snacking?
  • Are you attempting to make yourself feel better?

If you are eating to distract yourself from an uncomfortable emotion, this is a form of avoidance that will temporarily make you feel better. Your immediate discomfort decreases (thank you, dopamine), and you momentarily forget that you feel bad.

However, if you do not address the underlying emotions, the relief will not last. The feelings that are fueling your desire to eat are still there and will resurface later.

It is important to remember that emotions are not bad. They tell you something you need to hear. When you are upset and find yourself reaching for food, stop and name the emotion. Are you sad, angry, worried, scared?

There is no right or wrong way to feel. Acknowledge the emotion without judgment, and then ask yourself, “What can I do instead of eating to feel better?"

Step two: What are your other options?

You may have a habit of reaching for certain foods when upset because they are quickly reinforcing. However, many activities can give you a similar mood boost including talking to a friend, exercising, listening to music, and meditating.

When you discover that other activities can satisfy your emotional needs, you develop a healthier relationship with food.

Your list of alternate activities will be the most helpful if you personalize it. Think of options that are the best fit for you and your lifestyle. These activities should be easy, convenient, and healthy comfort strategies.

Write them down and post the list in a prominent location (refrigerator, pantry door) so you can easily refer to it when needed.

Options include:

  • Exercise — whether it is a run, walk, weight lifting, or stretching, movement improves mood.
  • Drink a cup of hot tea or a glass of cold water
  • Listen to music — Research indicates that listening to your preferred music stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain, just like your comfort foods.
  • Chew a piece of gum or brush your teeth — peppermint is energizing and may satisfy an oral craving.
  • Phone a friend or spend time with a loved one. Social support provides a buffer against stress, and lower stress helps you maintain healthy habits.
  • Write in your journal.

Mindful Eating

When your body is experiencing real hunger (stomach growling, low energy) and it is time to eat, use this opportunity to enjoy your food. When you eat mindfully, you are more aware of your body, its needs, and when those needs have been met.

Tips for mindful eating:

  • Pause before you eat and answer this question: why am I eating?
  • Eat foods that are nutritionally healthy rather than emotionally comforting.
  • After each bite, put down your utensil and chew the bite thoroughly. Savor the full flavor.
  • Eliminate distractions. Sit at the table, turn off the TV, put your phone away, and remove any clutter. Avoid multitasking while eating, instead focus your full attention on the meal.
  • Wait before getting seconds. Give your body a chance to digest the food, and pay attention to your body’s cues that you are feeling full and satisfied.

Final Thoughts

The holidays can be stressful, and stress can penetrate every area of your life, including your eating habits. If your patterns are out of sync, remember these tips.

  1. Pay attention to hunger cues and emotions before consuming food. Ensure that you are eating because your body needs fuel, not because you desire comfort.
  2. Focus on managing tension and stress before sitting down to eat. You can engage in different coping strategies, and these activities may satisfy the “hunger."
  3. When you experience real hunger, eat mindfully and pay close attention to when your body’s needs have been met.

This article is for educational purposes only, not as a substitute for therapy or other medical treatment. I am a psychologist, but I am not your psychologist. Please know that there are medical professionals in the local area to help you with your specific situation when needed.

Please follow me for more articles on healthy living, self-care, and personal growth. This article was originally published on ConqueringCognitions.com.

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Clinical psychologist turned writer | PsyD | Outdoor enthusiast | Museum lover | We are stronger together | ConqueringCognitions.com - healthy cognitions can conquer almost anything

Colorado Springs, CO
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