Holiday Stress Doesn't Have To Lead to Emotional Eating

It is that time of year where families come together.  This can be a very joyous time but also a stressful time. For an emotional eater, food is even more accessible and everyone around you is indulging so you join in.

It does not feel good in our body and our minds to eat until you feel stuffed. If you are eating to manage your stress or happiness it is even more critical to start enjoying eating for taste, not for emotional relief.

Imagine this new years you didn’t have to beat yourself up and set a resolution to start focusing on eating better.

So how do you self-care and manage emotional eating over the next few weeks?

One of the first things I try to learn about a new client is whether they are able to set boundaries for themselves.  Why is this so important?

Without boundaries, we cannot take care of ourselves, which can lead to stress or sickness. It is no coincidence that my inbox gets flooded during the holiday season with e-mails from people who are overwhelmed and have their health issues flare up.
Let’s take the famous analogy of being on an airplane when the air pressure drops. If you put an oxygen mask on a child before yourself, what can happen to you? I think you get my point. This is the same thing you need to focus on in your day-to-day life and even more so in times of stress.

So what is boundary setting? Some examples are learning to say no, listening to your body when it is burnt out and needs rest and doing something for yourself before doing something for others.

This may seem logical, but it can be overwhelming to try putting it into action.
So let’s start small.

1)   It's time to start taking care of you.

Why is this important? Many feelings are masked by not having boundaries in place. Feeling burnt out, angry, resentful, like you are trying to stay afloat… the list goes on and on. It’s time to start realizing that you have needs that aren’t being met, and that this situation is affecting your health and causing you stress. Write out why you feel you need to set boundaries for yourself around your family and friends and use this to remind yourself whenever you forget why you want to make this change.

With all the family gatherings, parties and shopping, it can be easy to forget that you need some “you” time. Look at your calendar this week and book off 1 to 2 days or nights for yourself – for you to do whatever you feel like. As tempting as it may be throughout the month to book something in, remind yourself that it is very important to take care of yourself. If that reminder does not work, think of it as a doctor’s appointment you cannot miss.

2)  Create a list

Create a list of the boundaries you feel you need to make with your family. You aren’t going to work on all of them right now, but you now have a list of boundaries you want to start implementing.

3) Pick one

Pick one boundary to start with this year. Write it out and start practicing it before your family gatherings. For example, you may decide that you will take half an hour a day for yourself.  Schedule it, and make sure to keep that half-hour for yourself. On the day of a gathering, continue this habit. Your aunt may want you to come by early to help set up, but this is more time than you want to spend with your family. Remind yourself this “you” time is crucial for your health, and let her know you can’t make it. This is time for you!

Another example may be deciding on how long you talk to a family member on the phone before or after the event. You can let them know you have 15 minutes, and when those 15 minutes are up you let them know you have to go. If they continue talking, remind them that you have something to do (even if that something is sitting on your couch for 15 minutes before the kids get home).

4) Write it down

Write down every time you respect your boundary. This will remind you that you are progressing. Any time you need this reminder, take a look at your list and see how you have been improving.

Remind yourself that this is a learning curve. You may not always do it “perfectly,” and sometimes you may not do it at all. You are not perfect; do you remember any past holiday season that went exactly the way you wanted it to? If so, you were probably on The Cosby Show (for those of you who are too young to remember, it was a show from the 80s of a picture-perfect family). Don’t beat yourself up! Recognize that you are trying to make a change and be GENTLE on yourself.  The more gentle you are, the quicker the change will happen.

Start practicing some of these steps. Eventually they will become second nature, and you will feel empowered to set boundaries whenever you need to. This is what self- care is all about.


Natalie Shay is a Psychotherapist and Life Coach specializing in emotional eating. She struggled with her own weight for 20 years. She finally learned to stop dieting and lost 75 lbs. In 2007 she became a Registered Psychotherapist to help emotional eaters stop turning to food for comfort and lose weight without dieting. She helps support her clients and guides them to meet their goals to stop dieting and start living.
Natalie can be reached here