Coping with Stress and/or Emotional Eating During Quarantine

April 20, 2020

If you have been experiencing stress or emotion eating during these difficult times, understand that is a completely normal human reaction, however, there are other ways to cope as well. 

 

Why do we stress eat?

Food provides us comfort at a cellular level. Specifically, carbohydrates and highly palatable foods. When we eat carbs, our brains release dopamine (a pleasure hormone). Carbs also allow the brain to produce serotonin (happy hormone), and control cortisol production (which is released when we’re stressed.) So when we’re feeling stressed, we know something that will immediately calm us down is food. 

 

Why do we eat when we’re bored?

For the same reason above. Our brains light up when we eat, so if you’re feeling bored and unstimulated, we know food is one way to excite us temporarily. Since it is a very temporary “high,” we keep reaching for more to get that same feeling. 

 

Food scarcity fear can lead to binge eating.

Food scarcity (or even just the thought of food scarcity) may lead to binge eating. Our bodies sense the panic, and drive us to eat large quantities of food to prepare for a famine. And this happens not only when there is an actual pandemic, but also when we diet. Our bodies do not understand the difference between a famine and a diet. It is your body’s way of protecting you and keeping you alive. Instead of being angry with yourself, understand it’s a survival tactic that is deeply seeded into our biology. 

 

The good news:

The good news is that as long as food is not scarce, the stress or bored eating will eventually slow down and stop, as long as you allow yourself to do it. 

There is a process that occurs with food, that humans know very well, called habituation. 

Think of habituation as a “honey moon phase.” It happens when we get a new car, or hear a really good song for the first time. At first, the thing is really exciting. It’s all we can talk about. We listen to the song a million times. We think, “this is the best song EVER.” Until one day you’re kind of sick of it, you want to listen to something else. Eventually this song just becomes another song on your playlist that you enjoy just like the others. 

Eventually, you will learn that eating when you’re not actually hungry is not that satisfying. 

Eventually, the ice cream in your freezer that seems really tempting, you can take it or leave it, as long as you allow it. 

 

Ways to cope that do not involve food:

  1. Check in with yourself. Go to a quiet space, close your eyes, ask yourself “What am I feeling?” 

  2. Identify the feeling and try to be really specific ie. "I am feeling scared because I have no control of when my business will open". Identify where you feel it in your body, "My chest muscles feel tight". 

  3. Now that you know what you’re feeling, what do you need to make yourself feel better?  

  4. Some other ways to cope:

    1. Call a friend or family member

    2. Cry it out 

    3. Move your body

    4. Deep breaths

    5. Wrap yourself in a blanket

    6. Get outside

    7. Listen to music

    8. Journal 

It’s not just about having willpower or distractions, it’s about truly dealing with true source of the negative emotion as well as the discomfort we feel.

 

Other tips

 

  1. Eat balanced meals throughout the day (protein, fats, and carbs) so you can rule out if you are truly hungry, or just bored/stressed. 

  2. Eat foods that satisfy you. Being full is different from being satisfied, if you aren’t satisfied with your meals, you’ll likely keep reaching for more foods and snacks.

  3. Make sure you are still eating enough! You may think that since you are less active, you may need less food, however this can be causing you to undereat, and then lead to overeating later in the day, or even the next coming days. 

  4. Make the best choices with what you have. We may not have the privilege to top quality foods right now, and that’s okay. Do the best with what you have. 

  5. Schedule meal times. With a lot of us being out of work, or working from home, and taking care of kids, you may be going too long without eating. Try not to go longer than 3 hours without a meal or snack. This will help you avoid overeating or constantly snacking later in the day. 

  6. Listen to your body and honor your cravings. Your cravings are your body talking to you, so if you are craving carbs, eat carbs. Pair them with fats and protein to avoid blood sugar spikes. 

We are human, we are going to eat for comfort from time to time. The key is to have other ways of coping so it isn’t your only tool in the tool box.

 

Kerry is a certified personal trainer and health coach at Elevation Fitness, reach out to us if you need help!

 

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