Food Psychology Healthy Holidays Weight Loss Strategies

Managing Stress During the Holidays (and Why it Helps You Eat Less)

Having go-to strategies for managing stress during the holidays can help you enjoy time with your loved ones AND make you feel like you got to relax over the break. But, did you know that managing stress can also help you eat less during the holiday season?

Having go-to strategies for managing stress during the holidays can help you enjoy time with your loved ones AND make you feel like you got to relax over the break. But, did you know that managing stress can also help you eat less during the holiday season? Let’s talk about why stress can trigger overeating and ways to manage your stress!

The Link Between Stress and Overeating

Stress can be a significant trigger for emotional eating— times when you eat because you know that certain “comfort” foods will make you feel better. And, the foods you’re most likely to reach for when you’re stressed tend to be higher in calories, fat, and carbohydrates (like pizza, potato chips, and cookies).

Have you ever eaten these higher-calorie foods when…

  • Your boss gives you a negative performance review
  • You’re up late studying for a final exam and are exhausted
  • You’ve been running around all day long caring for your children and feel like you haven’t had a minute to yourself
  • Your in-laws are staying with you for the weekend

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have likely eaten in response to stress (haven’t we all?!).

There are both biological and behavioral reasons why stress can cause overeating. Biologically, stress increases a hormone in your body called cortisol. Cortisol can increase your motivation to overeat AND makes your body store fat more easily (Sinha et al., 2019).

Behaviorally, recent research has shown that your perception of stress is the best predictor of whether you’ll stress eat (Klatzkin et al., 2019; Meule et al., 2018). In other words, your attitude and perspective matter. No matter what is going on in your life right now, you can reduce how much stress you feel and then make it less likely you’ll stress eat.

Why Stress Can Be Higher Around the Holidays

The holiday “break” can feel more busy than relaxing for many people. We’re all juggling many tasks– finishing work/school for the year, gift shopping, coordinating travel plans, and running from one family member’s house to the next. As a result, it can be hard to find time for yourself.

Feeling overwhelmed when you’re expecting a “break” can lead to feelings of stress, anxiety, and burnout. If you can relate, please know that you’re not alone. Importantly, there are also ways you can help yourself find a bit of peace during the holidays.

Managing Stress During the Holidays

Remember, your perception of your stress matters more than the actual amount of stress in your life. You could be the busiest person in the world, but if you handle it like a zen master, you’re less likely to have negative consequences like overeating.

Here are some science-backed strategies for managing stress that can help you handle this holiday season with ease.

1. Set boundaries for yourself.

It’s not selfish to set firm boundaries during the holidays. Carving out time for yourself often means learning how to say “no” to other people. Consider saying “no” to holiday events you don’t want to attend. Or, preserve one day of the break for yourself (and plan your travel accordingly). You can also think of where you could delegate some of the tasks on your plate to others who would be willing to help you.

2. Find small ways to prioritize yourself.

This strategy brings some meaning to “finding joy in the simple pleasures” in life. Think about little delights you can bring into your busy days to remind yourself that you’re cared for. It could be as small as a cup of your favorite herbal tea while you’re having a conversation with the family member who stresses you out. Or, it could be a ritual like creating a morning or evening routine that helps you start or end your day YOUR way.

3. Try meditation.

Meditation has consistently been linked to reductions in stress, depression, and anxiety (Goyal et al., 2014). In just 5-10 minutes per day, meditation can provide you with the inner peace you’re looking for. There’s impressive evidence that meditating regularly can even change your brain in just 8 weeks to improve higher-level thinking and decision making (Gotink et al., 2016). There are free smartphone apps like Headspace and Calm that provide you with a perfect starting place.

4. Make time for enjoyable exercise.

Physical activity is a perfect way to clear your mind and has been scientifically shown to reduce stress (and depression and anxiety) (Van Der Zwan et al., 2015). But, it is important to choose a form of activity that you actually like doing. Think about an activity you used to enjoy when you were younger or one that makes you feel calm now. Maybe you reignite your love for dancing (but in your living room like no one’s watching!). Or, maybe you take some time to go for a long walk with your coffee in the mornings.

5. Give yourself a gift.

We get so busy shopping for other people during the holidays that we can forget about ourselves. This is a perfect time of year to treat yourself to something you would enjoy. You could consider a relaxing experience like going to a spa for a deep tissue massage. Or, you could purchase a gift that will help you keep your goals for health and wellness in mind. Perhaps some new noise-canceling headphones to help you focus during your workouts?

6. Process your emotions in a helpful way.

When you have a helpful outlet to process your emotions, you’ll be less likely to turn to comfort foods. I strongly recommend my patients take up journaling to process their thoughts each day. A gratitude journal can help you be even more laser-focused on the good things that happen to you each day. I love this gratitude journal by Sophia Godkin, PhD, because Dr. Godkin will help you curate a gratitude practice based on scientific strategies most linked to stress reduction!

Dr. Schulte’s Summary

Stress can be higher around the holidays because we’re all trying to balance work/school, gift shopping, travel, family, and friends. Our busy schedules can make it difficult to feel like the holidays are a relaxing break. But, stress can increase your risk of overeating, which can interfere with your goals and well-being. I hope this post provided you with science-backed strategies to reduce your stress, so you can at least feel more equipped to take on the holidays!

How do you plan to manage your stress during the holidays? Let me know in the comments!

Click here to get my free guide that outlines the first three specific steps you should take ASAP to kickstart your weight loss journey!

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Gotink, R. A., Meijboom, R., Vernooij, M. W., Smits, M., & Hunink, M. M. (2016). 8-week mindfulness based stress reduction induces brain changes similar to traditional long-term meditation practice–a systematic review. Brain and cognition108, 32-41.

Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M., Gould, N. F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., … & Haythornthwaite, J. A. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA internal medicine174(3), 357-368.

Klatzkin, R. R., Dasani, R., Warren, M., Cattaneo, C., Nadel, T., Nikodem, C., & Kissileff, H. R. (2019). Negative affect is associated with increased stress-eating for women with high perceived life stress. Physiology & behavior210, 112639.

Meule, A., Reichenberger, J., & Blechert, J. (2018). Smoking, stress eating, and body weight: the moderating role of perceived stress. Substance use & misuse53(13), 2152-2156.

Sinha, R., Gu, P., Hart, R., & Guarnaccia, J. B. (2019). Food craving, cortisol and ghrelin responses in modeling highly palatable snack intake in the laboratory. Physiology & behavior208, 112563.

Van Der Zwan, J. E., De Vente, W., Huizink, A. C., Bögels, S. M., & De Bruin, E. I. (2015). Physical activity, mindfulness meditation, or heart rate variability biofeedback for stress reduction: a randomized controlled trial. Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback40(4), 257-268.

Disclaimer: all opinions are my own and are not affiliated with my employers. Please seek medical guidance before pursuing weight loss or making significant changes to the way you eat or your physical activity routine.

4 replies on “Managing Stress During the Holidays (and Why it Helps You Eat Less)”

It seems quite weird mentioning stress and holiday in the same sentence, but yes I can imagine that stress can get out of hand, as you want to have a proper holiday, but are sometimes pulled in so many different directions that you end up stressed as you feel you are working harder than you do at work.

Holidays are indeed a time to unwind and destress, but often it can be the opposite as you end up trying to catch up on everything you haven’t got around to doing during the year as you were too busy with work. I liked your strategy of setting boundaries and learning to say no. This is one of the only ways you are going to keep your sanity, especially if you have demanding friends and family. It’s your holiday after all.

Hi Michel! I appreciate your perspective and totally agree. In addition to feeling busier than expected during the holiday break, some of my readers have shared that they find it difficult to stick to their healthy habits and experience lots of stress as a result! I’m happy to hear that your holidays are less stressful! 

I do not know why anyone would be stressed during the holidays. The holidays is a time to recharge and run away from all the problems of the world. But if you are still stressed then the tips that is outlined in this article will definitely help you overcome that stress.

Hi Aubin- I am so glad to hear that the holidays are a stress-free time for you! Some of my readers find it difficult to make healthy lifestyle choices during this time or are dealing with conflict at home. Hopefully these stress management tips could be helpful to you more generally!

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