Dear New Shrink,

Everyone is talking about how to avoid all the temptations right now. The holidays seem to bring overindulgence, whether it’s eating, drinking or overspending. Since no one seems to know, I thought I would ask you.

Signed,

Clueless

Dear Clueless,

There is no question that for many, the holiday spirit is an excuse to indulge. For others, it is a time to hang on tight to avoid overeating, excessive drinking or spending too much money. Clearly, there are many more opportunities to give in to those devilish temptations. It is also a time when we are subject to peer pressure and the tensions and pressure that can come from our family and relatives.

One problem is that we are easily seduced by immediate gratification. Whatever feels good in the moment somehow becomes more important than our longer term goals. We often compromise our future health or happiness for immediate gratification; somehow we just forget about the bigger picture or what might be important to us down the road. However, no one wants to end up with a credit card bill that they cannot pay, or be 15 pounds heavier come the first of the year.

Clearly, we need to think about our longer term goals and make them important if we are going to resist immediate gratification. Unfortunately, this can be easier said than done. Studies have shown that our brains will not always handle too much self-control or willpower all at once. Research in neuroscience has shown that when we exert too much control in one area of our lives, we are not likely to be able to control another. A simple way of putting this is to say that we need balance in our lives.

It is also true that if we have been subjected to a great deal of stress in our lives, we will be less likely to avoid temptations. This is because most of our “control energy” has been exhausted by managing the stress, and holding ourselves together in spite of it.

We must learn to take care of ourselves if we are to resist those temptations that can later lead to regret. Balance is critical, and so is adequate sleep and nutrition. Sleep is important because it is the time that our brain is rejuvenating itself so that we can handle situations put before us. Diet or nutrition is important because our brain needs its fuel. While the brain accounts for a mere 2 percent of our body mass, it consumes at least 75 percent of our body’s energy, i.e., glucose. This amazing fact has been demonstrated in numerous research studies. It is very important that we have our three or four meals a day. Size can vary but we need our nutrition; our brains need their adequate supply of glucose in order to function well.

Being in control of ourselves is also a function of the expectations and beliefs we hold about ourselves. If we don’t think we can do it, then we probably won’t. We need to believe in ourselves in order to stick to our goals. Sometimes it takes some behavioral change and the actual experience of doing things differently before we can believe in ourselves. One way to get here is by thinking a situation through and making some mental plans on how to handle it.

Try to imagine the situations you will be in and think through how you might deal with them. Make a plan and do your best to stick by it, e.g., if Joe offers me a Long Island Iced Tea, I will say “I am not drinking tonight or I only want a glass of wine, thank you.” If Susan brings me her delicious chocolate cream pie, I will only have a half sliver of it. Or perhaps you decide to avoid that store where you know you might spend too much money.

In summary, do the best you can to take care of yourself before putting yourself in tempting or dangerous situations. Don’t start out too hungry, tired or emotionally stressed. Think seriously about your long-term goals and how you might achieve them, one situation at a time, and one day at a time. If you feel you are overly stressed or weak at this time, consider the buddy system. Yes, ask a friend to help you stick to your goals.

But let us not forget that it is the holiday season, a time to rejoice and have some fun. The key is balance.

Happy 2010!

Dr. Barge is a licensed psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist with offices in Brentwood. Send your questions and responses to newshrink@gmail.com or visit us at www.newshrink.com. All correspondence is kept strictly confidential. Got something on your mind? Let us help you with your life matters.