During the holidays, it can be easy to stress over getting everyone the right gifts and organizing family get-togethers, and the changing seasons can leave you in a funk. Food is one of the easiest methods to turn to when you’re feeling stressed, anxious and depressed, but it’s also unhealthy to cope with your mental health issues through food.
Jessica Setnick, the author of “The ADA Pocket Guide to Eating Disorders,” said in an email that she believes women do use food as a coping mechanism to handle mental health issues during the holidays.
“Some eat more, some eat less,” Setnick said. “The ones who eat more wish they were the ones who eat less, but actually eating less is just as stress-provoking. Not getting enough to eat increases anxiety and decreases ability to handle stress.”
Karen Koenig, a licensed clinical social worker and the author of “The Food and Feelings Workbook” and “The Rules of ‘Normal’ Eating,” said in an email that this unhealthy coping mechanism can intensify during the holidays, but it doesn’t necessarily start during the holidays.
“If women (or men) are in the habit of not experiencing their feelings or not managing them in healthy, effective ways, they will continue to do that during the holidays, only more so,” Koenig said.
Debi Silber, a health and wellness expert and author of "A Pocket Full of Mojo: 365 Proven Strategies To Create Your Ultimate Body, Mind, Image and Lifestyle," said that women try to do it all and be "superwoman" at this time of year, and this can create the stress and anxiety that leads to emotional eating.
"Many women use food as a way to soothe, calm, numb and relax from their problems and pain," Silber said. "Emotional eating is a self-soothing technique we've learned or taught ourselves and food is simply the drug of choice. It's easy, accessible and provides instant relief (although long term pain) as we flood ourselves with hormones/chemicals which help us relax."
If you haven’t yet gotten to the point of turning to food as a coping mechanism, and want to prevent that from happening, Setnick has some tips for you.
“Follow your normal eating schedule if it is a healthy one, i.e. eat several times a day, don’t wait till you’re starving to eat, [and] keep your groceries stocked in the house so you don’t get stuck eating random sweets or party food that you really don’t want,” she said.
Koenig suggests staying in tune to how you feel at all times.
“It’s important for women to monitor their emotions, especially if they’re feeling stressed, lonely, overwhelmed, or underappreciated,” Koenig said. “Only by acknowledging and identifying feelings will they know what an effective strategy is to deal with whatever they’re experiencing.”
Acknowledge situations and people that trigger negative inner reactions as well so you have time to prepare for healthy ways of coping, she said.
Silber said that it's best to first figure out how your body responds to stress.
"Do your muscles get tight, back hurt, do you get a headache or stomach irritability?" she said. "Once you recognize that, instead of taking medication to mask the symptom you can recognize that it's a result of stress and cut things off at the roots ... not at the leaves."
Understanding your limits can also be helpful.
"Control whatever you can control (which is us) and change your perspective on things out of your control," Silber said. "Stress will occur but the way you react to it is up to you."
If you’re already using food as a coping mechanism, there is still hope.
“Plan a time to vent with a friend every day for five or 10 minutes, or plan time to write in your journal or even just download your stress onto a sticky note,” Setnick said. “The more outlets you have for your stress, the less likely you will take it out on your food. Also, practice saying ‘no’ to party food you don’t want. This is not rude behavior, but many of us have been taught that it is. We need to unlearn it.”
Koenig suggests asking yourself if you’re actually hungry enough physically to eat before eating, and if you’re not actually hungry then figure out how to deal with what you’re actually feeling.
Trudy Scott, a food mood expert and author of “The Antianxiety Food Solution,” said in an email that low serotonin and seasonal affective disorder can be a disastrous combination during the holidays.
“Many people use food to cope during the holidays simply because of low serotonin and feeling depressed and anxious,” Scott said. “Together with depression and anxiety, low serotonin can also cause increased carb and sugar cravings and hence using food to try and cope.”
If you fix the low serotonin problem, then she said food cravings will go away. Here are her suggestions to increase serotonin: “full spectrum light therapy; addressing any deficiency of vitamin D; moderate exercise, ideally something outdoors like skiing or snowshoeing; the amino acids tryptophan and 5-HTP taken in supplement form; and always eating real whole foods, eating enough protein and managing blood sugar.”
Setnick, Jessica. Email interview. Dec. 20, 2011.
Koenig, Karen. Email interview. Dec. 20, 2011.
Scott, Trudy. Email interview. Dec. 21, 2011.
Silber, Debi. Email interview. Dec. 21, 2011.
Reviewed December 22, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith