Emotional Eating in the Time of Coronavirus

You don't need to use food to soothe anxiety and worry about coronavirus.

Posted Mar 18, 2020

Are you worried about the coronavirus? Even if you’re young and healthy you might worry that you’ll lose your job or miss your paycheck—or, if you’re in school, whether you will be able to get enough credits to graduate on time. If you’re middle-aged you might have a sinking feeling watching the value of your investments or 401k crater. 

Working from home and avoiding groups in response to the crisis may leave you lonely, without the social support that would help to deal with the current situation. If you’re older, there’s a very real health risk. Perhaps you forgot to wash your hands, or the person next to you at the check-out counter sneezed. You feel okay, but what are the symptoms you should be aware of?

Turning on the radio, TV, or going online doesn’t help, so what do you do with the worry and anxiety you’re experiencing? Many people use food in an attempt to soothe these emotions.

The anxiety and worry about coronavirus can trigger eating. The public health restrictions limiting social contact could have the unintended consequence of increasing emotional eating. Typically, when you’re at work the opportunities to snack are limited but if you’re working from home the goodies in the refrigerator or pantry are only a few steps away. A two-pronged approach would help to minimize emotional eating. This entails reducing emotional distress and altering the environment to reduce the opportunities to snack. 

Here are a few tips to minimize emotional eating which will be especially helpful if you’re working at home:

If you find yourself worrying about things that you can’t control, try to do all your worrying in one spot. Choose a worry chair and go sit in it while worrying. Eventually, you’ll find your mind wandering to other topics so you can get up and resume your normal activity.

When experiencing the physical symptoms of anxiety try breathing exercises. Take a deep breath, filling your lungs, hold it for 3 to 5 seconds, feel the tightness in your chest, and then slowly exhale. 

Try to find alternative ways of nurturing yourself. Take a break and play with your pet. Go for a walk outdoors, practice yoga moves, listen to music, or dance around the living room. Knit, sew, or crochet instead of eating.

If you have calorically dense foods in the house, rearrange your refrigerator and pantry so they are less visible and harder to get. Put the goodies on the top shelf or behind other foods in the freezer. If you must have treats in the house, buy single servings (e.g., ice cream pops or sandwiches rather than quart containers) so that the portion size is clearly defined. 

Better yet, get healthier snacks like mandarin oranges or almonds and make them easy to get. When eating, make it a singular activity; don’t eat while reading, watching TV, etc. Don’t eat standing up; sit at the table to eat. 

There’s no doubt that the pandemic is alarming. Each of us will need to take precautions to avoid getting sick and/or transmitting this illness to others. Fighting the pandemic will require us to change behaviors. We’ll need to have the fortitude to deal with the resulting health and financial challenges we face but we can do this without using food to soothe worry and anxiety.