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Did the Holidays Trigger Emotional Eating?

To cope with guilt, anxiety, and stress, start counting memories, not calories.

Key points

  • Money, lack of sleep, socializing, alcohol, and conversations centering around food and appearance are common emotional eating triggers.
  • Emotional eating happens when a person uses food to cope with extra stress, anxiety, or negative emotions.
  • While guilt, anxiety, and dieting are not the answer, actively planning ahead is one way to greatly reduce emotional eating and binge eating.
Source: iStock/SIphotography

This post was written by Gia Marson, Ed.D.

While the holidays are marketed to us as the happiest time of the year, for many this is not the case. If you turned to food to manage intense emotions—a practice known as emotional eating, binge eating, or compulsive eating—and are uncertain about how to deal with the consequences, it may be because:

  • Your emotions are intense
  • You have high standards
  • You compare yourself harshly to others
  • You don’t know how to stop impulsive behavior

Eating special foods when celebrating is a normal part of many traditions. If you find yourself looking back at how you lost control with food, focus on the positive moments and the memories you made, not on what or how much you ate.

As for the future, improving your ability to cope with negative emotions can make a real difference.

Identify your triggers

Identifying the triggers that lead you to lose control when it comes to food is an important step in creating healthy habits. Common triggers associated with the holidays can include:

Money: Dollars spent on gifts, travel, or socializing—or feeling guilty for not spending enough—can lead to feelings of anxiety and stress.

Lack of sleep: Fitting in time to buy gifts, attend events, and commute long distances can leave you running on empty when the holidays are over.

Social situations: The holidays often bring together people you haven’t seen for a while or are meeting for the first time. These social interactions can be uncomfortable, and you may find yourself overthinking what you said or did as you look back.

Alcohol: Drinking alcohol is a part of many holiday traditions, but it can heighten negative emotions and cause loss-of-control behaviors.

Emphasis on food: At social gatherings, talk about food and appearances can be expected. Regrettably, this can create pressure to eat less or differently in the new year.

6 ways to cope with post-holiday emotions

When negative emotions get out of hand, it’s important that you acknowledge them, tolerate them, and build resilience, instead of pushing them away and trapping yourself in a negative emotion cycle.

Remember that being human is an emotional experience. If you numb your emotions, you might feel protected in the short term, but you’ll miss out on all of the good ones too.

Check the content of your thoughts. Are you berating yourself for something (e.g., eating more than usual) over the holidays? As an antidote, change what you are thinking about by recalling meaningful or happy moments. Try this one-minute experiment: Pay attention to all of the details related to one positive memory and notice the way it makes you feel.

Own the emotion. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, sad, or frustrated, notice what you are feeling and name it. Once you identify an emotion, it can feel less scary and all-consuming.

Get moving. A brisk walk, vacuuming, or even singing along with a favorite song can reduce the intensity of negative emotions and keep you from turning to food in response to them.

Plan ahead. Actively prepare for how you will stick with what makes you feel strong, grounded, and resilient when inevitable future challenges arise. Consider the predictable triggers mentioned above such as: how you spend money, getting enough sleep, ways to make the most of social situations, being honest about your relationship with alcohol, and dealing with unhealthy messages about dieting.

“[S]imply writing down our account of a challenging experience can lower physiological reactivity and increase our sense of well-being, even if we never show what we’ve written to anyone else.” ―Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.

Track your eating without restriction. Eating foods not in your regular routine over the holidays may have led you to believe that you ate more than you did. or to exaggerate the impact of a few holiday meals. If you are anxious about returning to your usual way of eating, write down what you’re eating now. Doing so may lower your stress response and give you the evidence you need to eat intuitively.

Share. Sharing your feelings with people you trust can be helpful if the urge to emotionally eat or binge eat rises.

The holidays—and you—are imperfect

There’s no such thing as a “perfect” celebration. Things may not have gone as planned, and you may have eaten out of your norm. That’s okay! In fact, it’s normal. Punishing yourself will only add to negative feelings and intensify negative thinking—and that is likely to exacerbate binge eating, compulsive eating, or emotional eating.

Be kind to yourself. The secret to success...

“ not to become a perfect, shining star or to learn to be in complete control of your feelings. These strategies are doomed to failure. In contrast, when you accept yourself as an imperfect but eminently lovable human being, and you stop fighting your emotions so strenuously, your fear will often lose its grip over you.” ―David D. Burns, M.D.

A simple shift in your perspective can help balance your emotions. Hold on to meaningful memories from the past and look ahead for sparks of joy.


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Katterman, S. N., Kleinman, B. M., Hood, M. M., Nackers, L. M., & Corsica, J. A. (2014). Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, and weight loss: A systematic review. Eating Behaviors, 15(2), 197–204.

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