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Shift Your Mindset To Prevent Stress Induced Emotional Eating

Many people struggle with emotional eating under normal stressors but, with fewer coping options available because of social distancing, emotional eating is on the rise.

By Michelle Hunt, PsyD, LCADC
Clinical Psychologist and Licensed Clinical Alcohol and Drug Counselor
Virtua Medical and Bariatric Weight Loss 

Anxiety often is prompted by uncertainty and a lack of predictability or control in your current routines. For that reason, the spread of COVID-19 is causing anxiety even in those who, in normal situations, aren’t particularly anxious people.

With this global pandemic—where the threat is real and not perceived—we’re primed to feel anxious at the same time we’re being asked to stay in our homes. Some of our normal coping strategies like hanging out with friends or family or going out in groups aren’t available to us right now. This is leading some people to cope with stress through eating.

Many people struggle with emotional eating under normal stressors, but, with fewer coping options available, emotional eating is on the rise—even for people who don’t normally do it.

Why we turn to food in times of stress

Food is essential for survival so you eat to live, but you also eat to relax, which activates your brain’s reward center. When you eat foods that are unnaturally high in sugar, artificial sweeteners, carbohydrates, fat, and salt, you get a greater “feel-good” response, which temporarily lifts your mood or eases your stress.

In addition, you likely have some favorite foods that give you comfort when you eat them because they’re connected with a good memory or an association with good feelings. With the COVID-19 outbreak causing anxiety and uncertainty for many, you may find that you’re drawn to those comfort foods more now, and that you’re less interested in eating healthy foods.

The best thing you can do is shift your mindset away from the negativity of the situation and focus on what you CAN do to make the best of this situation.

Sort of like making lemonade when life gives you lemons.

Create structure and maintain normalcy as much as possible

Remember there’s comfort in predictability and routine. Try to wake, sleep, and eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, at the same times you would normally—set alarms if you have to. You may even want to pack your lunch the night before if that’s part of your normal routine. Keeping a normal eating and sleeping schedule also will ease the transition back to your regular routine in the future.

In addition, eating regularly timed meals will prevent nighttime overeating or binges that often are prompted by being overly hungry.

If you typically go to the gym to work out, you should continue to exercise at home, preferably at the same time you normally would. Even if you weren’t a gym-goer, recognize your normal routine may have been more active than your home routine. Therefore, you may need to incorporate additional movement within your house or get outside on nice days to walk, jog, or garden.

Stay connected during this time of social isolation

Loneliness can be a trigger for emotional eating, and many people who struggle with emotional eating also have a history of eating alone or secretively due to feeling ashamed of their behavior.

Less interaction with others may trigger an increase in eating foods that people label as “forbidden” or “bad,” leading to increased feelings of shame and guilt. Unfortunately, feelings of shame further increase feelings of isolation and loneliness, further disconnecting us from others.

To combat this, shift your mindset away from labeling foods as “bad” or “forbidden.” If you’re home with family or others, celebrate your togetherness by cooking healthy meals you might not otherwise have time for and enjoy sharing the meal with each other, rather than by yourself. This promotes a sense of calm and connectedness and eases stress.

Choose foods that taste good and provide nourishment so that you feel good about the meals you create and the benefits they bring to your body. You may even want to take time to feel connected to the earth and the nourishing foods it has to offer, shifting attention toward gratitude and away from negativity.

This is a good time to experiment with new recipes, a new method or style of cooking, or new ingredients like vegetables or spices that add a burst of flavor to your meals. If you live alone and can’t share your food easily with others, freeze some to share later or share recipes or food ideas with others through social media, FaceTime or Skype, or by phone.

Use the time you have to plan for success

In times of stress, your mind is preoccupied with the crisis at hand, leaving food planning and prep further down the priority list—especially when there are still options for ordering out, as well. The grocery-hoarding trend we’ve seen also is causing fear that there may be food shortages.

When following a healthy-eating lifestyle, meal planning, shopping, and food prepping are all essential for success. Try to shift your mindset to make these activities a priority, since they’ll help you maintain a sense of structure and normalcy, and help you have a sense of control during this stressful situation.

Manage your mindset to manage your health

Manage stress with positive distractions, staying connected, maintaining a schedule that includes food prep and exercise, as well as through limiting your exposure to the news.

Talk with others about things other than COVID-19, and try to engage in non-food activities that you love and that nourish your soul. It’s also a good time to try online apps for meditation and relaxation, or to follow the professionals who are streaming live yoga, dance, and exercise classes, and meditations.

Overall, maintaining mental and physical health comes down to managing your mindset.