Advice on Coping with the Holidays, from an Obesity Expert

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Editor's Note: This summer we interviewed renowned obesity expert Dr. Martin Binks, and, due to the overwhelming popularity of that post, he has agreed to contribute regular guest posts to the dailySpark. We're thrilled to have him!

NEW: Dr. Binks shared a video on this same subject!

By Dr. Martin Binks

So the holidays have arrived with all the promise of Norman Rockwell-like family celebrations, joy, good cheer, gift giving and spectacular feasts and festivities – maybe. At this time of celebration our expectations are often quite high and our responsibilities and schedules seem to grow exponentially. On top of all the normal day-to-day things like going to work (or in light of our current economy, looking for a job), getting the kids to school and extracurricular activities, and basically living our already full lives, we find ourselves juggling budgets to buy gifts, attending extra family and work-related social events, decorating, cooking--and the list goes on and on. Then if we do all this successfully, we are blessed with the actual holiday, where people you may only socialize with or even see once a year come and judge your party-giving skills, your cooking and the quality of the crystal ball reading you were required to do to find the "perfect gift." In all of this commotion it’s often too easy to forget that self-care is still important. In fact "me time" is often last on the list and frequently postponed until January.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the holiday season and truly believe it can be a wonderful, rewarding and fun time provided we approach it in the right way and don’t get overwhelmed. Through my work with patients and families I have come to understand some ways that this stressful time of year can remain joyous. I would like to share some general perspectives that seem to have helped folks with whom I work. I will also be reminding you of some core skills that can make coping with and even enjoying this season a little easier by allowing you to focus on realistic self-care goals during this busy season.
  1. Holidays are not a season; they are a series of discrete events of varied duration interspersed with periods of preparation/aftermath but also with periods of holiday-free time. What do I mean by that? All too often, in terms of self-care things like diet, exercise, stress management and finding time to take care of ourselves are relegated to "after the holidays." The result being a period of about 2 months (from before Thanksgiving until after New Years) where we let ourselves go and backslide on our health goals. Instead of doing this, consider containing the individual events to a reasonable and accurate timeframe. Whether it's a holiday party, a visit with friends, shopping, or the holiday event itself, each needs to have a clear beginning and end (a few hours, a half day, or a couple days) after which you return "to normal" so that during the hours or days in between you do what’s best for you and your health.
  2. Don’t make a single holiday event into an all-day healthy eating and exercise hiatus. So let’s say you have a holiday party tonight. All too often on holidays folks forget that if you eat a little less (but don’t starve yourself) during the day and be sure to get your exercise, you will benefit both in terms of overall calorie balance for the day but also psychologically you will feel more in control and better prepared to stay with your plan in the days that follow. So the extra calories you might take in at that one event don’t to build to being several days of feeling "off your plan." Do this for each "discrete event" throughout the holidays and you won’t have a 10 pound mountain to overcome in January.
  3. It’s OK to be frustrated. So many times I hear people beating themselves (or friends and family members) up over the fact that every minute of every event was not perfect, joyous and without disagreement. Think about it, at the height of one of the busiest times of the year, with all the pressure to make things perfect, we then throw groups of people together and expect them to get along perfectly. Not going to happen. Families and friends sometimes disagree, often we all act in ways that might get on people’s nerves – why would the holidays be any different? So think about how to minimize conflict by maximizing your acceptance of other people. More often than not if you try not to take things too personally you will be happier and your friends and family will too.
  4. Take time for yourself. Face it, we all do better if we have some quiet time just for ourselves but that is usually the first thing to go when we are busy. Interestingly if you do take that time to recharge, other things seem to be handled more easily, day to day challenges seem less stressful and life seems a little less overwhelming. This is true every day including during the holiday season. So whether it’s taking an hour for a relaxing bath, reading or fitting in some exercise, down time rejuvenates and makes life easier to handle.
In addition to the tips and strategies above, there are a couple core self-care skills that you can apply during the holidays to improve the quality of your life.

Fight negative thinking.

We all have an “internal dialogue” that can be either positive or negative. Negative thinking often distorts facts and influences other thoughts, can interfere with our comfort level and our goals, and may impact emotions, self-esteem, and self-confidence. In thinking about the holidays, consider all the times that your internal dialogue gets triggered whether it's at a social event, when preparing for a family gathering, or even when looking in the mirror. I am sure you can think of times your thoughts got in your way or upset you. You may recall times that you realized afterwards that your thoughts got you all worked up even beyond the true "facts" of the situation. This holiday season take time to pause and monitor your thinking especially when you are upset. Understand how your thoughts may be making matters worse then take action to 1) Identify the thoughts that are not helping, 2) Stop those thoughts by simply saying stop, and 3) If possible replace the thoughts with something more calming. For example if you are fretting over a party you have planned, tell yourself “I know I have not thought of EVERYTHING but overall I have planned well for the party and its time to relax and have fun!” This process can work to improve your state of mind in almost every situation.

Set aside time to manage your stress and practice some relaxation strategies.

Managing stress effectively involves fighting the negative thinking that adds to daily stress, not taking on more than you can handle, asking for help when needed, and just keeping the holidays in perspective.

However, even when you are able to do this successfully stress does creep in and over time it does build up unless you practice letting it go on a regular basis.

The body’s natural relaxation response is a powerful antidote to stress. This physiologic state of calm allows our body and mind to rejuvenate. Physiologically, we cannot be both stressed and relaxed simultaneously so if you can learn to elicit the body’s relaxation response, the stress response can be effectively blocked or reduced. When our minds become focused through meditation, visualization, or relaxation, the body responds with physical changes, including decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, muscle tension, and oxygen consumption. Once you learn how to practice the relaxation response regularly you will notice feeling more relaxed throughout the day even when not actually doing a relaxation exercise. Practice makes perfect when it comes to relaxation.

Here is a quick and simple relaxation breathing exercise to get you started.

Make yourself comfortable. Lie on your back or sit in a chair in a comfortable position.

Close your eyes and begin focusing on your breathing. Notice how the breath feels as it flows into your body and then flows back out again. Take a few deep breaths…

Now place your hand on your stomach. Make sure you allow your stomach to rise as you breathe in followed by the air flowing up into your chest… make the breath last for a count of 3 or 4…as your lungs fill with wonderful, energizing air …Pause for just a moment

…then as you breathe out…allow your stomach and chest to fall as you quietly say the word relax under your breath. Repeat this as you continue to gently breathe in 2, 3, 4… and out 2, 3, 4 …

Continue this exercise for as long as you wish, 5, 10 or even 20 minutes. You will find the more you practice the better you become and the easier it is to feel relaxed. Then, when you don’t have time to stop to do this in a formal way, the practice will have "trained" your body’s relaxation response so that just a few deep breaths and perhaps saying the word relax will trigger a calm feeling at any point during your day.

Some people find it easier to use a relaxation CD or audio file; there are many good ones available. Just try some out and see which ones you like the best – you can usually sample these CDs at your local bookstore or on the internet.

So remember, take some time to care for yourself this busy season and above all enjoy a happy and healthy holiday!

Dr. Martin Binks is Clinical Director and CEO of Binks Behavioral Health PLLC. He is also Assistant Consulting Professor, Division of Medical Psychology, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Duke University Medical Center. His professional activities include direct patient care, research, consultation services and the development of evidence-based obesity and health promotion programs for healthcare, research and corporate wellness environments.

Dr. Binks received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Fairleigh Dickenson University, trained at the Bronx VA Medical Center and completed pre and postdoctoral training in behavioral medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. He is the former Director of Behavioral Health, Research, and New Business and Strategic Alliances at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center. Dr Binks has worked extensively in the areas of obesity, health & wellness promotion, neuropsychology, substance abuse treatment, post-traumatic stress disorder and spinal cord injury.

Dr. Binks has authored and co-authored multiple research publications and the book The Duke Diet and has appeared on MSNBC Countdown with Keith Olberman, ABC news "On Call”, NPR, Lifetime Television, WGN, 700 Club and is a featured contributor on He is regularly called upon for commentary on a wide range of health and psychological topics in a variety of national publications and websites including USA Today, Washington Post, LA Times, Oprah Magazine, GX Magazine, AOL Health, Fitness, Men’s and Women’s Health Magazines Reuters and the Associated Press. Dr. Binks has been a contributor with the Army National Guard Decade of Health and Wounded Warriors Programs and is a member of several corporate advisory boards.

His research interests include technology-based healthcare delivery, obesity treatment, non alcoholic fatty liver disease, and overall health promotion. He serves as a reviewer on several scientific journals Dr. Binks contributes to healthcare provider education through his work with students and trainees and by lecturing nationally in the areas of obesity management, health promotion and behavioral medicine. Dr. Binks is currently active in several leadership positions at the national scientific organization The Obesity Society.

Dr. Binks works directly with health coaching clients from around the world through in-person, telephone and web-based technology and also offers individual psychotherapy at the Durham, N.C., location. He can be reached through

Which tactics do you use to get through the holidays?

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The concept of the "holidays" being a one time deal is so true. The Biblical Holy Days were entire weeks - one week in the spring, one day in the late spring early summer, one week in the fall and that's immediately followed by the Last Great Day. So it is difficult going away to observe the Feasts and realizing it's as much a spiritual feast, a fellowshipping with friends and family as well as physical food type of feast. One really has to be disciplined if they go somewhere else, to not burn the candle at both ends every day, to not over eat or over indulge during meals, to take some time for themselves to process all that's being learned and experienced, to go for a walk or some other sort of exercise either alone or as a group. Those who keep Sukkoth in their back yard might have a little more flexibility and control over their dietary needs, but I wouldn't know since I've never stayed home to observe the Fall feasts (only the Spring Feasts, where there is additional dietary restrictions.). Report
I let myself eat a few more cookies a week during December, but still keep exercising and eating healthier meals. I try to eat in moderation. I don't party or go to get togethers that often, so I don't really feel pressured to eat much more than usual. Report
well i guess thats what ive sort of been doing a little without naming it this year so i havent been packin em on like usual but weve been gettin into lower calorie stuff and adding ground flax like addin nuts or whatever on top of foods the kids n i have been breaking things up in smaller increments of just like today and with them needin their walks like 5 miles at a whack we just might make it Report
I love his comment "Holidays are not a season; they are a series of discrete events of varied duration interspersed with periods of preparation/aftermath but also with periods of holiday-free time." I'm going to have to put it in my quotes list to pop-up when we Holidays come around! Thanks Dr. Binks. Report
A combination of viewing each event as a separate occasion plus the positive thinking and relaxation techniques will help me through the holiday season and beyond - disfunctional families don't disappear after January 1! Report
I really like the idea of looking at the holidays as discrete events - not a season. I plan to put this into practice. Report
My coping includes, hot tea, a good book and going to yoga class frequently! Report
Glad you are writing articles for SP. This one has very important information about the holidays and how to handle the stress, joy, etc. Thanks. Report
My biggest challenge is that all the exercise facilities close over the holidays and my karate club is taking a break as well. Sure I can walk the dog, but it's hard to burn the calories I need for my plan just by walking. We've got a little exercise room at work which I can try although I might have to line up for it :( Report
Definitely deep breathing is most helpful for me. Taking the time to just remember that this is an enjoyable time and nobody is worried if things go askew. Report
I have read all of the above. Its a great time of year to have family, food and fun. But my family are coming here for the month, first 2 adults then after a few days another adult then a few more days and 2 more adults and then there will be 8 of us and I am the one who does all the cooking, organising and cleaning and everyone has a good time. I sort out the fights and washing and pets and make merryment. But in between the hard work I look at the joy I have brought everyone for the month and that refreshes me. I take a bath and have my, me time. I have to plan the meals and days as individual events, as we would run out of food, and money. But all the time I am trying to make sure that everyone is happy, healthy and careing about each other.If I am finding it too much, I deligate jobs to them, Its working so far as I have stayed the same weight and not too stressed so, I wish each and every one of you a very happy christmas and joyful new year. Report
I just wish I had read this earlier.
Putting things into proper perspective is what I am working on now. Holiday plans changed and hosting has now been foisted upon me. I have never really been comfortable with hosting,
Your words are what I will be keeping in mind through the rest of the season.
“I know I have not thought of EVERYTHING but overall I have planned well for the party and its time to relax and have fun!”
Thank you for this gift and the reminder to breathe. Report
I use the tip about eating lighter meals prior to having a special holiday meal. I especially liked Dr Binks comment "Holidays are not a season; they are a series of discrete events of varied duration interspersed with periods of preparation aftermath but also with periods of holiday-free time," This is the best reminder that each event has a beginning and and end time and that the eating and celebration is not nonstop. Great reminder to help me stay in control. Report
As I refuse to worship Santa Claus, and the other crap that Christmas has become this in an issue. Christmas is no longer a Christian hoilday and I avoid it. Report
Thank you for the help. Report
Just another day: will I pass/fail to treat my body with respect. Or perhaps I will hear that little ditty "you desrve a break today." Report
I read Judith Beck, PhD's "The BECK Diet Solution" which isn't a diet, but how to THINK like a THIN person. Dr. Beck is a Professor at the U. of Pennsylvania and the daughter of Aaron Beck, M.D. who developed Cognitive Therapy in the 1960's for depression patients. Report
I am also one of those people that really don't like the holidays always so much tragedy this time of the year. I will be doing as I have done in years past going along to get along and keeping a low profile... Report
life is great . live it to the fullest . enjoy each and every second . Report
This is great advice! I like the idea of looking at the holidays as seperate small events rather than as a "season." I definitely want to incorporate that into my thinking. Report
LOVE the idea of looking at this time frame as individual events rather than the whole season. This allows opportunity to relax the watchfulness over eating but still keeps me from losing control for the entire time-frame. Great idea and a workable solution!

This is great advice, thank you for writting for SparkPeople! Report
I will be using the relaxation techniques. To be blunt I hate the holidays - I pray for them to just be over. Too much family drama that sucks the life right of you. Report
Thanks, this info is very helpful. I am going to follow your advice and have a happy holiday season event. Report
Smile and count your blessings! Report
As with everyone that's commented before me, I completely agree with it being a series of discrete events, but even so I can't say I had ever thought of it that way.. Hearing it explained in that way makes it so much easier to keep working out and eating right! Also, it's simply too hard to lose weight for me to go and blow all my hard work in a month! Report
I agree with the previous post; It's a Holi-DAY not a holi-month!

As far as dealing with the holiday, I gave myself permission to adapt heavy traditional meals with lighter alternatives. We used to have a fish dinner on Christmas Eve that included fried fishes, heavy pasta sauces, etc.. I have found some great recipes here at SparkPeople and elsewhere to make over those dishes and still keep the tradition!
Also, merengue cookies are festive and less of hit to my fat and calorie intake. Report
Wonderfully written blog. So glad you will be a contributor. Report
Good article, gave me somethings to think about and supplied strategies for surviving the holidays. Report
I wear the tightest jeans I can find as often as possible. If I put on any weight they get tighter and I get more uncomfortable.... That is a constant reminder that I'm over doing it and that if I don't watch it, I won't fit into my clothes. If I wear loose or stretchy clothes, I'll ignore the issue until it's too late! Report
This article gave me more strategies and perspective about the holiday struggle to remain balanced and not overwhelmed, specially parsing the holidays as singular events instead of one game season of losing/gaining, etc. Thanks! Report
All I have to do is think of how bad my feet hurt in March,before I lost 55lbs.The thought of not being independant was a nightmare come true.I love Christmas,there is a day after Christmas. Report
All I have to do is think of how bad my feet hurt in March,before I lost 55lbs.The thought of not being independant was a nightmare come true.I love Christmas,there is a day after Christmas. Report
Great advice. I hadn't really thought about it as totally manageable discrete events, rather than a season. I think that will help Report
I keep remembering that each holiday is a discrete event. I put on close to 2lbs on Thankgiving (which I was really surprised about), but I remembered that it was a one time deal, and in a week and a half, I took it off again.
My coworkers are sabotaging me, though, saying that there is no diet between Thanksgiving and New Years. I know this isn't true and I will prove it.
These tips are definitely helpful for that :) Report
Thank you for these insights. I will particularly benefit from the relaxation techniques. Report
Dr. Binks' comment, "Holidays are not a season; they are a series of discrete events of varied duration interspersed with periods of preparation/aftermath but also with periods of holiday-free time," was significant to me and one I will put to use! Look for the moments in between and schedule healthy living throughout. It only makes sense! Report