As the world attempts to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us are feeling increasingly stressed. As recently described by the World Health Organization (WHO, 2020), fear, anxiety, and uncertainty about the disease itself is co-occurring with requirements for social distancing and increasingly difficult economic realities with an unknown trajectory. As such, helping people through the coronavirus pandemic is not just about helping them stay safe physically—it is also about helping them maintain mental and emotional health (CDC, 2020).
When a stressful situation of this magnitude arises, people often experience substantial changes to their eating behaviors (CDC, 2020). Generally described as emotional or stress eating, we often start to eat (or not eat) in a conscious or unconscious effort to suppress or soothe negative emotions (Mayo Clinic). These emotionally-based changes in eating behavior range from overeating to binge eating to severe caloric restriction (Epel, Laipdus, McEwen, & Brownell, 2001).
For example, when feeling strong emotional states, some people are more likely to binge-eat, which is characterized by eating large amounts of food in a short amount of time while feeling unable to stop. Others may notice “grazing” behavior where they want to eat constantly throughout the day or night. Still others may restrict their eating, sometimes in an attempt to feel control over something during a time of great uncertainty. Furthermore, in the current pandemic situation, fear around the availability, accessibility, and cost of future food may affect the eating experiences of many people.
The truth is there are many psychological and biological reasons that we eat when we feel stressed. Eating can decrease negative emotions in some individuals (e.g., Lavendar et al., 2016). For example, in individuals with more clinically-elevated eating issues, some research suggests that negative affect predicts binge-eating behavior, which in turn can reduce negative emotions (Lavendar et al., 2016).
Eating can also serve as a welcome distraction from challenging life realities and a self-soothing coping mechanism during uncertain times. Biologically, stress is associated with changes in cortisol, which plays a critical role in energy regulation. We also tend to crave food higher in fat and sugar when stressed, in part because our body requires more energy to function when stressed, and simple carbohydrates are the fastest way to get a quick hit (Harvard Mental Health Letter, 2018).
That said, emotional eating can also lead to regret, physical discomfort, and weight gain because the original stressors will remain independent of our eating behavior. Consequently, until we honestly address the actual emotions driving our eating, our desire to eat will remain when stressed, often leading to longer-term harm to our physical and emotional health.
5 Tips for Curbing Emotional Eating
If you find yourself stress eating now or in the coming months in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, here are five tips to help you.
1. Become more aware of your feelings, and let yourself feel them away from food. Take time each day to reflect on how you feel and whether it is leading you to crave food in an undesirable way.
Ask yourself questions like: How are you feeling? When do you feel most stressed? What is most worrisome to you about your life today? How are your feelings affecting you and your experience of life right now?
2. Recognize your triggers for emotionally-based eating. Become clear about when you will be most likely to want to eat more or less. This could be anything from moments when your child throws a tantrum during your new-found homeschooling program to wanting privacy in a social-distancing environment that offers none to watching too many upsetting news stories.
Triggers can also be internal, like thinking about how hard it is to work from home or fighting with your partner and ruminating about your financial situation in the wake of economic struggles.
Ask yourself questions like: When are you more likely to stress-eat? What circumstances make it hardest for you to control your unwanted eating behaviors? What kinds of food do you crave, and when?
3. Make conscious choices about your eating, avoiding triggers when possible. Choose deliberately what you will eat and when. Challenge yourself to cope with those negative emotions that you may be experiencing away from food.
Ask yourself questions like: Will I feel better after eating this? Is this something I am going to regret eating, or do I actively choose to eat this? What do I need to change about my life today to help myself not experience unwanted emotional eating episodes?
4. Get social support while avoiding exposure to triggering material. Most of us are quite isolated from our typical routines, communities, and social networks right now. Yet humans are highly social beings, and social connectedness is a core way we cope with stress and hardship (CDC, 2020). We need to stay in touch with friends, family, and the broader community.
That said, watching the news is triggering for many people experiencing a crisis situation (CDC, 2020). So, you may need to limit exposure to the news.
Ask yourself questions like: Who can I call today that will help me stay emotionally grounded? How can I help others in my life get through this? What can I do to feel more connected to my community even if I can’t interact with them in person right now?
5. Start fresh, each moment of each day. If you had a rough moment or day and did not like the way you felt or ate, start again. You can always start eating differently at this exact moment.
Beating yourself up about past eating is not going to be helpful. Instead, encourage yourself to start fresh right now—without judgmental criticisms or self-deprecating sentiment—and reestablish a pattern of eating that both acknowledges the difficult emotions you may be feeling as well as encourages deliberate eating behavior that feels healthy and positive.
The Naked Truth
As the world attempts to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us are feeling increasingly stressed, which often leads to emotional eating. When and if you experience unwanted eating behavior because of strong negative emotion, it is helpful to acknowledge and experience your feelings away from food, understand your emotional eating triggers, and make conscious choices about what you will eat and when. Get and give as much social support as you can from loved ones and start fresh if you have an undesirable or unpleasant eating experience.
This is going to be a stressful phase of life for millions of people around the world, so practicing deliberate eating behavior that promotes physical and emotional health is critical.
Copyright Cortney S. Warren, Ph.D. ABPP.