Own Your Emotions: A Beginners Guide to Not Stress Eating Your Way through the Holidays

As the weather continues to cool, the holiday lights start sparkling, and holiday music floods the retail shops. As the family starts coming around more often, the office parties multiply, the shopping lists get longer, the guest lists start to grow, traffic gets busier, work days seemingly longer, quality sleep becomes less attainable, exercise soon falls off the priority list, school plays and parties are weekly now, and last days to get free shipping on your order is quickly approaching… Drive thru’s become even more convenient, holiday parties have an open bar, holiday baking leaves you with more cookies at home than with the mail man and hair dresser, retail shopping is never complete without a stop off in the food court, Aunt Bonnie made her famous crinkle cookies and an extra box just for you to take home, Thanksgiving is hosted at your house this year, leftovers abound. I digress… Holidays, emotions, and eating are three words that pair more closely than Deck The Halls!

So what is a person to do in order to survive and more importantly enjoy this festive time of year without stepping aboard the crazy train of holiday emotions, derailing off the track, straight into a pile of pumpkin pie? I’ve got a few ideas, and it all starts with taking a long, slow, deep breath…

Emotional eating is no longer a secret, a sigma, or a rarity. It’s real and it haunts many of the patients I work with on a daily basis. Hunger is no longer the only reason we feed ourselves. We reach for food in times of stress, when we feel deserving of a reward, or simply as a source of comfort. Sadly, it doesn’t stop there. We also teach these ‘food as reward or punishment’ behaviors to our children, grandchildren and often times use our children needing the cookies as cover up for our personal behaviors toward food. The worst part, it doesn’t FIX the emotional problem at hand.

Although food can provide much of what we need nutritionally, what we’re seeking emotionally is not contained in the molecular structure of a chocolate cake or box of mac n cheese. What’s more, now our emotional problems are complicated by the fact that we feel sick from eating more than what our body can handle, and most likely harboring guilt from over indulging. Not to mention with each instance, we miss the opportunity to deal with the emotion in a healthy manner. The cycle perpetuates.

Emotional Eating Quiz:                                                                                                            Yes/ No

Do you feel powerless or out of control around food?

Does food make you feel safe? Do you feel like food is a friend?

Do you reward yourself with food, repeatedly?

Do you eat regularly, and then eat more until you feel overly full?

Do you eat in order to try and feel better (to sooth yourself, to try and feel calm, when you’re sad, mad, bored, anxious, etc.)?

Do you eat more when you’re feeling stressed than at other times?

Do you eat when you are not at all hungry, or when you are already completely full?

Step 1: Detect your Triggers

Learn to recognize your emotional eating triggers. Triggers could be positive or negative. Everyone’s are different. Keeping a food journal is a great technique. Writing down your foods, the emotions and situations that both precede and follow emotional eating is pivotal to eventually overcoming emotional eating. The first step is all about building awareness!

Common Triggers include:

  • Stuffing emotions – Attempting to numb your feelings with food
  • Stress – Cortisol is a stress hormone that is release to help us escape a dangerous situation (like being chased by a tiger). It also triggers cravings for salty, high-fat, and sweet foods.
  • Boredom or emptiness – Eating to have something to do. To satisfy un-fulfillment, purposelessness, dissatisfaction or emptiness.
  • Social influences – Eating or drinking because everyone else is doing it.
  • Childhood habits – Reliving childhood rewards, punishments, or coping mechanisms using food.

Step 2: Emotion Hunger vs. Physical Hunger

Identify & distinguish physical hunger (PH) and emotional hunger (EM). In your food journal, use a marker to highlight EH and PH in two separate colors.

  • Emotional Hunger
  • Physical Hunger
  • Comes on suddenly; feels overwhelming & urgent
  • Comes on gradually; with stomach pains & growls
  • Feels like it must be satisfied instantly
  • Can wait
  • Cravings are very specific – mostly high calorie, low nutrient density comfort foods
  • Open to options, most things sound appealing to the appetite.
  • Fullness isn’t met by a full feeling in stomach and overeating almost always occurs
  • Eating stops when you’re physically full
  • Feelings that follow EM are generally powerlessness, shame, and guilt
  • Do not feel bad about yourself when eating to satisfy PH.

Step 3: Feed Feelings without Food.

Nutrition knowledge can only take you so far. It’s one thing to know and understand how foods work as fuel and medicine in our bodies, what foods serve as better fuel and medicine, but event the most knowledgeable foodie cannot maintain a healthy body if they aren’t able to identify and address their emotions without using food to cope. Below are some alternatives to try:

Alternatives to EM


  • Explore the outdoors, read a book, watch your favorite show, listen to a podcast, pick up a hobby, take on a side job or volunteer work, clean your house or start a remodeling project


  • Take a yoga class, listen to a guided meditation, expend your nervous energy by dancing, take a hike or walk, squeeze a stress ball or call up a friend


  • Create a sound space to sleep (without TV, phones, and lights) to rest better, light a lavender candle, take a bath with Epsom salts, steep a cup of tea or wrap up in a warm blanket

Depressed or lonely feelings

  • Call someone who makes you feel better, play with your dog or cat, look a favorite photo album or enjoy a favorite movie, album, or book.

Step 4: Press Pause

Take a deep breath and press pause! When our emotions are in control of our eating, our brain is on autopilot. Most of the decisions we make about food are mindless and seemingly out of our control. Pressing pause, taking a deep breath, closing your eyes and counting to 10 when the emotion has triggered allows you to act with intent and mindfulness rather than react to the situation at hand. Even if you decide to go ahead and eat, at least now you’ve identified the trigger and can better understand how to address the real, underlying problem.

Own your shit! While feeling powerless around food may seem like the issue at hand, eating emotionally can sometimes mean your playing victim or feeling powerless to your real problems. Feeling those uncomfortable emotions can be scary, but the less we obsess or suppress, the quicker they lose their power and our attention. Mindfulness is the quickest way to deal with owning and truly feeling our emotions. More mindfulness = picking up on roller coaster emotions. The sooner you identify, the quicker you can decide how to proceed.

Step 5: Be Proactive.

A rusty bridge breaks because we let it get rusty. When we allow our mind-body to be the lowest on the totem poll, and we’re not proactive with self-care, it becomes a lot easier for our mind-body to break down. However, if we’re well rested, stay relaxed and worry free, and keep a clear, positive outlook and well nourished, physically fit body it’s a lot easier to deal with emotions when they come rolling our way.

  • Plan, shop, and prepare whole, real foods to have on hand at all times, in all situations. Especially during the holidays.
  • Mark daily activity down on your day planner or iCal like a doctors appointment or hot date you wouldn’t dare miss.
  • Connect with friends, family or strangers. Never underestimate the power of social engagement and relationships. Remembering that positivity breeds positivity. Find friends to surround yourself with that build you up, but don’t rely on them to do all the heavy lifting and building. All relationships are a two way street. Find friends that share similar outlooks.
  • Relaxation should never be forgotten. In nature, winter is a time for hibernation, for slowing down and preparing for the growth and expansion of spring. As nature’s creatures, we’re no different and can thrive by giving ourselves permission for at least 30 minutes of decompression and unwinding each day.

We love to hear how you deal with the holiday stressors? What tips and tricks do you keep in your back pocket to make the holidays a joyous and stress free season?

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Posted on

January 16, 2018