Food and Emotional Regulation: Navigating the Holidays Mindfully

It’s that time of year again. Halloween Candy. Pumpkin pie. Dinners with family. Candy canes and lights all aglow. Take a minute and think about what feelings come up for you with these words. Read them again and add your own. Feel any sensations in your body? Are the feelings good? Not so good? 

There are many things that can trigger unwanted feelings during the holidays. Holidays are celebrated by people. People can be very triggering to other people, especially when put together like a bunch of drowning people tossed into the same pool. There is going to be a lot of splashing and getting wet may feel unavoidable.

So, what do we do? How do we get through to January while keeping some sanity? Maybe we drink a little extra. Spend a little more money because the “perfect” gift can make it all feel better for a minute or two at least. For many people? We eat. And then we eat some more. Eating is socially acceptable, especially during the holidays! Those who engage in bingeing, may find this to be a very triggering time. And for those who struggle with restricting, this can be a time when they go into hyper-control mode and restrict even more. 

Think for a moment about someone who is addicted to alcohol. Now imagine that it was not acceptable for them to indulge in alcohol, EXCEPT for a few weeks a year...when everyone is doing it.  People who eat for emotional regulation, know what I am talking about. We have to eat to live. Period. And when the holidays come, we say we will indulge without guilt and shame because its the holidays. However, numbing our feelings until we are comatosed by sweets always has a downside. Usually we are not very forgiving of ourselves. We usually more than regret the choices we made. 

Now, is there anything wrong with using food to celebrate, self soothe or pass the time now and then? Absolutely not. In fact, the issue with overeating or under-eating is not a matter of right versus wrong. Being mindful is being aware without judgment. We are good enough and worthy of love, no matter what, how much or how little we eat. It's not only understandable to indulge at this time of year, it's actually culturally expected. However, if you have noticed that it doesn’t bring you happiness or worse if it causes relapse or sets you back in your healing, I want to share hope and tell you that there are alternative choices available. 

First step? Becoming more aware of our current choices. You can do this in many ways. You can keep a food log where you write down what you eat and perhaps what you are feeling when you eat, in a journal. You could do a photo log as well, taking pictures of what you eat before you eat it (Taitz, 2012). If you are someone who struggles with restricting, you might find it more helpful to set an alarm to go off several times a day to remind you to check in on your hunger cues. Notice and then journal any feelings that come up. Just remember to increase awareness, not judgment. 

Here are some alternative things to try when the temptation to binge, restrict or obsess come up:

Eat a small portion of whatever you want. If fullness went from a scale of 1 (starving) to 10 (completely stuffed), aim at staying between a 3 and an 8. 

Call or text a friend when you are feeling lonely.

Go sit in a public place, like a mall (or park if warm enough) and watch people. 

Listen to Christmas music

Start a relaxing hobby 

Draw or color a picture

Play a card game

Drink a full glass of water, wait 10 minutes and ask if yourself if you are still hungry. If you are, have a snack.

Go for a walk

Guess the number of bulbs on the tree. Count and see if you are right. 

Make Christmas cards to mail to loved ones

Sing Christmas Carols with a friend or loved one

Listen to a Podcast

Above all, remember that food intake and body shape do not determine our lovability. There is so much more to you than that. When you start to get self-critical, perhaps respond to your negative self-talk with the kind of compassionate reply you would give to a dear friend. New choices are only possible when we are aware of and compassionate toward the choices we have made and are currently making.

Caron Cordes, MSPsy, EDIT is a trained life coach with a Master’s Degree in Psychology. Having utilized therapists and life coaches in her own healing, Caron offers an empathetic, client-directed approach to healing with experience in faith transitions, depression and anxiety, trauma and is a certified eating disorder recovery coach.

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