Karen Nathan by Karen Nathan

We’re in the midst of the winter holiday season and, while there is much to look forward to, there are also plenty of potential pitfalls. On the one hand, there are treasured family traditions, special music and decor, and plenty of social time. On the other hand, there can be added stress from overloaded schedules and the perpetual temptation from overindulgent food choices. 

Sound familiar? Despite our best intentions, it can be challenging to stick to healthy behaviors during the holiday season. Perhaps you’re wondering if you’re doomed to repeat the missteps of years past. Rest assured, you don’t have to wait until the New Year to get your eating and exercise routine back on track. I find that the key to aligning healthy intentions with healthy behaviors is to take a cognitive behavioral approach.

Don’t be daunted by the fancy terminology. A “cognitive behavioral” approach is one in which we reshape our behaviors by identifying and then replacing sabotaging thoughts. Here are some examples of “thinking mistakes” I commonly hear from my clients:

  • “I won’t enjoy the holidays as much if I have to think about exercise and healthy eating.”
  • “I just can’t say no to these special holiday foods and drinks, so I’m going to give in and deal with the consequences later.”
  • “It’s not fair that others get to enjoy themselves while I have to think about healthy habits.”

Although these statements may feel compelling in the moment, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily true. It’s O.K. to question the merit or validity of your (negative) internal messages. A powerful and proven strategy is to rewrite your mental script to better serve you. In fact, this is a key component of the cognitive behavioral approach.

As a health coach, I help my clients identify thinking mistakes, and together we devise helpful responses that allow them to talk back to their distortions. Here’s how you might respond more effectively to the counterproductive messages cited above:

  • “I like staying on track. Rather than feeling guilty or regretful, I’ll enjoy the season more and feel physically and mentally better if I stick to my plan. Besides, once the New Year arrives, I’ll be proud of how I managed the holidays and I can build on my success.”
  • “There’s a big difference between eating and overeating. I can enjoy eating reasonable portions of special foods during this time of year.”
  • “What’s really unfair is dealing with the long-term negative health effects of excess weight! I’m eating and behaving in a way that makes sense for someone with my health goals.”

What thinking mistakes do you make regularly? What ideas do you have for responding to them?

You, too, can find a middle ground between feeling deprived and making unhealthy choices during this holiday season. Use your newfound cognitive behavioral skills to feel more confident, in control and hopeful about sustaining your healthy lifestyle habits through the holidays and beyond.