What’s eating you? The emotional side of holiday dining

So why do you find yourself bent over a plate of brownies, or halfway through a second heaping helping of stuffing that you swore you wouldn’t take?

Tricks don’t work because they don’t explore the underlying issues, the mental and emotional side of eating. And the holidays, more than any other time, are fraught with emotions. We’re short on time, low on cash, and either overburdened with family responsibilities or feeling the pang of loneliness. Certain key dishes may also bring back happy memories of past holidays. And all those high-carb, sugar-rich holiday treats temporarily boost levels of serotonin, the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitter, which makes us crave more.

Most of the time, you’re not really hungry for pecan pie or holiday ham. You’re craving a quick boost of feel-good brain chemicals to counter the effects of holiday emotions, or you’re starving for connection, peace, happiness, a fond memory of past experiences.

This season, if you’re hoping to maintain some control over holiday binging, look to the underlying cause — the emotions themselves. Approach this exploration with a gentle, inquisitive air, rather than another must-complete item to cross off your to-do list. Here’s how you might start:

1) Stay in touch with your feelings. Most of the time, we don’t have a clue what we’re feeling in any given moment. Make it a habit to check in two or three times a day; just before meals is the perfect chance to stay on top of your feelings, before they run your food choices.

2) Be in your body. Most of us walk around all day in a state of half-awareness, not really present in the room, on the earth, in our bodies. But if you’re not in your body, you have no way of knowing when it’s hungry or full. Get in the habit of checking in with your body, especially your belly, during the day. Where are your feet? How do your legs feel? Is your stomach tense, cold, empty, satisfied? Once you’ve practiced this for a while, it becomes automatic and makes it easier to choose foods based on what your body needs.

3) Examine your cravings. Binges and cravings are fraught with symbolism. The next time you find yourself in the throes of a craving, examine it. What is it about that food that you’re really longing for? If you like crunchy cookies when you’re stressed, is it the sweetness you’re craving, or the texture? Biting down on something hard and crunchy relieves tension in the jaw, and that loud, crunching sound as you chew may literally drown out the noise in your head. If you’re aching for warm eggnog, maybe the temperature and creamy texture is symbolic of what you need in your life: something warm, rich and soothing to fill up empty spaces.

4) Shift your focus. Imagine you’re alone in the house with a refrigerator full of holiday leftovers. Just before you plunge your hand into a box of chocolates, or your fork into an apple pie, quickly shift your attention. Take your focus to something outside of yourself. It may be visual: look out the window at the snow, the clouds moving across the sky, the blush of sunset. Or it may be auditory: the sound of your children playing in the living room, a favorite song. Focusing on sensory input calms the mind, gets you back in your body and helps you stay present. It’s also a fast, simple way to break the chain.

5) Be happy now. We think that once we get thin, or lower our blood pressure, or give up sugar once and for all, we’ll be happy. Most of the time, though, it’s the opposite: once you get happy, you’ll have a better chance of achieving your goals. A few years ago, a study found that happiness may breed success, rather than the other way around. The researchers suggested that happy people were more likely to seek out opportunities that would ensure their success. I believe happy people are more likely to stick to a way of eating that works for them, and less likely to eat from stress, depression or anxiety.

At any rate, there’s no point in delaying happiness, or loving your body and yourself, while you wait to achieve some possibly far-off goal. It’s all a process, and it may be a life-long one. Enjoy your holidays — and your life — in the meantime.