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Food, Netflix, and News: Why We’re Bingeing and How to Stop

Bingeing might satisfy emotional needs during times of crisis.

Women in bed watching TV, eating popcorn
Source: JESHOOTS/Pexels

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced many global and U.S. citizens to shelter in place, an interesting trend has surfaced on social media—confessions of, and recommendations related to, bingeing.

From food to Netflix shows, people worldwide are simultaneously celebrating and lamenting the extra time they have at home and the effects it has had on what they consume.

For those who consider themselves focused, motivated, and committed to personal growth, this period of increased consumption might be incredibly challenging to their sense of self.

Wasn’t I more productive and restrained just two weeks ago?

Moreover, the most astute among us are wondering how this happened and how to regain control of the worlds we once managed so adeptly.

As for how you slipped from being a productive and focused master of your career to bingeing on popcorn and Tiger King from your couch, science has some answers:

  1. Availability is key—Some of the bingeing related to COVID-19 is likely due to the unprecedented availability of things on which to binge. Popular news sources are providing lists of shows to stream during quarantine, newspapers are providing free daily updates on the coronavirus outbreak, and working from home means that many of us have unrestricted access to the full contents of our refrigerators. These types of external cues can spur consumption even if we are not craving the input. For example, in one recent study, having food available and watching others eat increased the probability of eating meals and snacks among those who were overweight (Elliston, Ferguson, Schüz, & Schüz, 2017). Similarly, the availability of news, entertainment, and food at our fingertips might be irresistible to some, especially those of us with the proclivity to indulge prior to the pandemic.
  2. Bingeing might serve an emotional regulation function—Threats of disease and death are scary. And the COVID-19 pandemic is increasing anxiety among our citizens, so much so that the World Health Organization has issued special guidelines related to coping with mental health issues during the pandemic (WHO, 2020). In lieu of traditional clinical treatments, people might be turning to readily-available home elixirs to ease their woes. This is consistent with what we know about how people cope with death anxiety: According to psychologist Dr. Sheldon Solomon, people might use everyday escapes, like television, to deal with death anxiety in an effort to (borrowing a phrase from Kierkegaard) “tranquilize themselves with the trivial.” And while the news stories related to COVID-19 are not trivial, the continual stream of information (along with hours of mindless television and oodles of empty calories), might provide the tranquilizing effect people need to help cope with social isolation, fear of death and illness, and mounting concerns about the future of humanity.
  3. In times of crisis, motivations change—According to social selectivity theory, those larger goals you had in mind before the COVID pandemic hit might be pushed aside for activities that fulfill your more immediate emotional needs. In a series of groundbreaking studies, Fung and Carstenson (2014) showed that when people were primed on the fragility of life through disaster or crisis (in this case, the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks and the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong), they were more likely to choose to interact with familiar social partners as opposed to novel partners, forgoing the possibility of future connection in exchange for the comfort of the familiar. This motivational shift—from future-oriented goals to immediate needs–may make you more likely to sabotage your diet plans and designs to revolutionize your industry in exchange for a quiet night on the couch watching the new season of Ozark with your boyfriend and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.

With regard to how to rebound back to your former, non-bingeing self, research in trauma intervention provides some good guidance.

First, attack your bingeing behavior by breaking down your bigger problems into smaller, more manageable concerns. Setting small goals, disentangling the parts of the problem, and rewarding yourself for small victories can all help in dealing with big stressors (Hobfoll et al., 1991). In the case of COVID-19 related bingeing, you might try to limit yourself to a single Netflix show a day, three meals, or a short period of time (e.g., 30 minutes) at the end of each workday to consume news related to the virus.

Second, you can try infusing a sense of calm into your home environment and focus on maintaining social connections. The promotion of calm and connectedness appears to be critical in overcoming crisis (Hobfoll et al., 2007), and although these strategies are typically applied to global crisis management, they can also help individuals cope with stress and anxiety. So, instead of the Netflix or donut binge, tune in to a free yoga video on YouTube or call up some friends for a video chat. And if you successfully do this today, reward yourself tomorrow. Celebrating every victory will be key to keeping yourself on track.

Finally, it’s important to recognize your emotions. The life you are now living is drastically different from the life you were living just a month ago. Even if you do not feel significant stress or worry, it is important to acknowledge the magnitude and swiftness of this transition and the impact it has had on your functioning. For most of us, this is the first time we have been faced with the burdens of managing family, work, and leisure within a single space. This is a complicated venture, even under the most ideal circumstances. And if you’re on stay-at-home orders, ill or fearing illness, concerned about your job security, living in a cramped apartment, and/or you have young children demanding your time and attention, the complexity of the task is multiplied.

Certainly, the abrupt transition has changed the way you move through this world. Give yourself grace and time to adapt to your new reality.


Elliston, K. G., Ferguson, S. G., Schüz, N., & Schüz, B. (2017). Situational cues and momentary food environment predict everyday eating behavior in adults with overweight and obesity. Health Psychology, 36(4), 337–345.

Hobfoll, S. E., Spielberger, C. D., Breznitz, S., Figley, C., Folkman, S., Lepper-Green, B., Meichenbaum, D., Milgram, N. A., Sandler, I., Sarason, I., & van der Kolk, B. (1991). War-related stress: Addressing the stress of war and other traumatic events. American Psychologist, 46(8), 848–855.

Hobfoll, S. E., Watson, P., Bell. C. C., Bryant, R. A., Brymer, M. J., Friedman, M. J., Friedman, M., Gersons, B. P. R., de Jong, J. T. V., Layne, C. M., Maguen, S., Neria, Y., Norwood, A. E., Pynoos, R. S., Reissman, D., Ruzek, J. I., Shalev, A. Y., Solomon, Z., Steinberg, A. M., & Ursano, R. J. (2007). Five essential elements of immediate and mid-term mass trauma intervention: empirical evidence. Psychiatry: Interpersonal & Biological Processes, 70(4), 283–315.

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