Facebook Pixel

Using Food as a Coping Mechanism During the Holidays

By HERWriter
Rate This
Mental Health related image Photo: Getty Images

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

Add a Comment3 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

Thanks Rheyanne,

As a borderline eating disorder sufferer, I can tell you the holidays are the worst. It's not just about the great food in your face - it's all about stress and diminished strength of will.

For those of you in a similar situation, check this out - it gives me a little strength during the season - and hopefully helps...

Holiday Stress and Eating Disorder Triggers

Happy Holidays all.

December 29, 2011 - 6:12pm
EmpowHER Guest

Try to control your food all the time to prevent gaining weight.I know is very frustrating to be overweight and in the same time is unhealthy. My husband was overweight for many years and he tried so many diets with no notable results. Finally he found a weight loss program that followed on TIPSTODIET.COM and had good results. He lost more than 40 lbs,and the most important thing is that he maintains his body weight even now after 1 year. He feels much better and I am so happy for him.
Everyone can do this!

December 22, 2011 - 3:41pm

Holidays are not the only time food can be used as a coping mechanism.  When diagnosed with a disease such as cancer one can do the same.  Either over eat or not eat at all.  The stress and worry can play big tricks on the body.  We have to treat our bodies as a very valuable machine.  When battling a disease or cancer, If you give it to much fuel (food or the wrong food) it will not operate properly and if we do not give it enough it will not function and not be able to repair what has to be repaired.

December 22, 2011 - 1:33pm
Enter the characters shown in the image.
By submitting this form, you agree to EmpowHER's terms of service and privacy policy
Add a Comment

We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.