Christmas parties, visits to the in-laws, finding the perfect gift for your impossibly picky uncle… while the holiday season is meant to be one of good tidings and great joy, it’s often rife with worry, tension and stress. And those emotions tend to send us straight to the buffet table and the eggnog bowl.
“One study that came out a few years ago said that people feel like they gain a lot of weight at the holidays, but on average, they only gain about two to five pounds,” says clinical psychologist, nutrition expert and best-selling author Susan Albers, PsyD, whose newest book, 50 More Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food: Mindfulness Strategies to Cope with Stress and End Emotional Eating, will be available this December. “Still, if you tally that each year, it can really add up. So the more mindful you are, the better.”
According to Albers, the biggest triggers for holiday stress are connections, commitments, cash (or lack thereof) and consumption. Everything from reuniting with family and overbooking the social calendar to overextending your budget and shopping for the perfect present can quickly translate to extra pounds of emotional eating. These events also take us out of our normal routine, so we end up skipping our usual weekly Pilates class to attend a company party (and “forget” to go back the following week).
When we’re stressed, our cortisol levels rise—and cortisol is the hormone that makes us crave sugary and fatty foods. Instead of succumbing to your cortisol-fueled cookie and stuffing cravings, Albers recommends these calorie-free alternatives to help you stay healthy and calm, naturally:
1. Ho-ho-ho. In this version of laughing yoga, close your eyes and do three Santa Claus belly laughs. According to an April 2014 Loma Linda University study, this kind of laughter helps reduce your cortisol levels. In the study, scientists found that humor—specifically joyful laughter—engages your entire brain in a way that’s similar to meditation.
2. Black tea. Several studies have shown that this calming beverage can reduce cortisol levels by up to 47 percent following a stressful event. In a September 2010 issue of Psychopharmacology, scientists from the University College London reported that study participants who drank a black-tea concoction four times a day for six weeks were found to have lower levels of cortisol after a stressful event compared to a control group who drank fake tea during the same period. The participants who drank black tea were also able to de-stress more quickly.
3. Cinnamon tea. Making your own cinnamon tea helps regulate your blood sugar, says Albers. “It’s as easy as boiling water, taking a cinnamon stick, putting it in water and letting it steep for a while. You can add honey or coconut milk. This is a healthier drink, too, than your cup of eggnog or a pumpkin latte.”
4. Origami. This ancient art “helps people to focus by putting their attention on something and concentrating in this meditative way,” Albers tells LivingHealthy. “Write a nice message or hang it on a tree. It can also be a gift.” You can purchase an origami kit online or at craft stores like Michaels or Jo-Ann’s.
5. Warmed pajamas. Putting your pajamas in the dryer for five minutes before bed is very calming because we tend to sleep better when our bodies are heated. (Plus, it’s hard to beat warm, cozy pajamas.) Who hasn’t felt more relaxed after a great night’s sleep?
6. Grounding technique. Grounding techniques help you return to the present moment, which in turn helps alleviate stress and anxiety. Put your hands together and rub them quickly back and forth to generate friction. Then, place your elbows on a table or surface and cover your eyes with your palms so you transfer the heat from your hands to your closed eyes. Continue to do so until you feel calmer. Another technique is to sit on the floor and put your hands against the floor, or assume Child’s Pose in yoga (where you kneel and put your forehead to the ground with your arms outstretched) to ground your emotions. Breathe deeply.
Finally, Albers says, if you still find yourself gravitating toward the holiday buffet, follow her five S’s of mindful eating:
1. Sit down when you eat.
2. Savor each bite.
3. Slowly chew.
4. Simplify environments (i.e., don’t have an overabundance of food around).
5. Smile, pause and ask yourself if you really want more.
These solutions are simple—and effective. After all, reducing stress can be as easy as removing your shoes. “I love what I call the shoe meditation,” Albers says. “We often walk through the door after work and we’re really stressed. By taking off your shoes and saying to yourself, ‘I leave my stress here at the door,’ that’s a moment of meditation to help calm you.”
A bonus: Not wearing shoes may slow you down as you head toward the kitchen for leftover turkey and stuffing.