A whirlwind of office parties, family reunions, and shopping days, the holiday season can easily sabotage the healthy limits we normally set for ourselves. But it's not just the overabundance of sweets that lures us, says Judith Wright, author of The Soft Addiction Solution (Tarcher, 2006). “The holidays stir up emotions that we often don't know how to deal with, so we end up self-medicating through unhealthy behaviors,” she says. Plus stress — another bad-habit trigger — can get exceptionally intense during this time of year. “When we don't have ways to relieve stress every day, our habits tend to break down,” says Wright. Of course, stress isn't exactly a holiday-specific phenomenon. But when compounded with the season's tendency to disrupt our regular routines, it can leave us especially vulnerable to relapse.

In some cases, it may be best to avoid the party circuit altogether and unwind by seeing a movie with a friend, but simply making a commitment to abide by healthy habits can be a good step. “If you hold a vision of yourself as a healthy, fit person, it can help you be more immune to temptation,” says Wright. Research supports this idea: In a Brown Medical School study published earlier this year, people who planned to firmly maintain their usual diets over the holidays ended up exercising more often and practicing greater restraint with food than other study participants. So make a commitment, then try these expert tricks to stay on track.

Nourish — don't nosh distractedly

Powerless against pumpkin pie? It's likely you're looking for another kind of nourishment, says Carol H. Munter, psychoanalyst and co-author of Overcoming Overeating (Da Capo, 1998). “If you're compulsively eating, it's often because you're using food to find calm rather than ease hunger,” she says. “So when you feel the urge to indulge, ask yourself if it's a physical or emotional need. If it's the latter, you need to find another way to soothe yourself.” Aside from seeking out a professional to talk to and sticking to your regular stress-busting exercise routine, set aside 20 minutes each day for activities that feed your spirit — such as meditation, yoga, listening to music, or reading a good book — to enhance your overall sense of calm, says Wright. Also try the following.

Eat well, consistently. Depriving yourself of good food makes you much more likely to overeat at gatherings, says Melinda Johnson, RD, of Chandler, Arizona. Instead of holding off on food all day in anticipation of eating heartily that night, be sure to munch on delicious, nutrient-rich eats throughout your day. Another trick: Sit down to a small meal before going out, making sure to slowly savor each bite. “You'll take the edge off your hunger, which allows you to make saner choices once you're at the party,” explains Johnson. Incorporate lean protein sources, such as fish or legumes, to help boost satiety and prevent overeating, suggests Cathy Wong, ND, author of The Inside Out Diet (Wiley, 2007). A 2007 study performed at Pennsylvania State University also showed that consuming a low-calorie, broth-based soup first may help you eat fewer calories later during a meal.

Give yourself a task

“If you assign yourself a job at a party, it will make you less likely to overeat just to have something to do,” says Wright. Take on the task of introducing partygoers to each other, or help the host take coats from guests. “Instead of going into the party thinking, ‘I'm going to feel awkward and out of place,’ you can make yourself more comfortable by making other people feel comfortable too,” says Wright.

Satisfy your sweet tooth naturally

It's no secret that sugar-laden pies and cookies can lead to unwanted pounds. To cut back without sacrificing altogether, Wong recommends turning to naturally sweet goodies like cinnamon-sweetened chai tea (without added sugar) and using the sugar substitute erythritol in your holiday baked goods. Extracted from fruit, erythritol is 70 percent as sweet as table sugar and can also be used in coffee and tea, says Wong.

Raise your glass — in moderation

Sipping mulled wine or champagne can be a fine way to celebrate, but holiday cheer shouldn't end in a hangover. If you have a hard time stopping after a few swigs of egg-nog — which also packs major calories — Wright recommends assessing your stress levels. “Overdrinking often occurs when you're feeling anxious at a function,” she says. “But if you have some awareness of those feelings, you can try to focus on talking to a friend instead of stuffing your feelings away with alcohol.”

Banish butterflies with botanicals

To avoid overdoing it, consider easing anxiety beforehand with natural remedies, says Wong. In addition to sipping tension-taming chamomile tea while getting ready, try taking a few drops of Bach Rescue Remedy (a flower-essence combo) or a tincture of passionflower. You can also dab a handkerchief with a few drops of lavender essential oil and breathe it in whenever you need to unwind your nerves.

Have a party plan

It's smart to set a drink limit for yourself — one or two glasses of wine, for instance — before hitting up a soirée, says Wright. “And make sure you go into the party well hydrated, so you don't end up drinking something alcoholic just because you're thirsty,” she adds. For extra support during those high-temptation moments, ask a friend or loved one to serve as your go-to person. For example, “plan to make contact with each other several times throughout the night,” Wright recommends. “If you're going alone, choose a friend who you can call to check in with, so you can feel like you've got a buddy on your side.”