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  • Sara B.

Combatting Emotional & Stress Eating During COVID-19

We are collectively in the midst of a challenging and unprecedented time. Personally, over the last week or two, I have found myself swinging from anxiety to gratitude to stress to boredom to fear, and a whole lot of in betweens. Our nervous systems are going through a lot as we adjust, so if you’re finding yourself reaching for food as a coping mechanism, I can assure you that you’re not alone – I have been too! Your other avenues of distraction or self soothing may be unavailable right now, and food may feel like a heightened (if not the only) source of pleasure, familiarity, and comfort.

As an Eating Psychology coach, I use a mindfulness based, intuitive eating approach to help clients work through challenges in their relationship with food, such as emotional eating, overeating, and binge eating. So if you’ve found yourself feeling a bit out of control with food lately and want to get back in the driver’s seat, try incorporating these 6 strategies:

1. Approach with Compassion

First – and this is very important – if you are beating yourself up for your eating choices recently and feeling frustrated by your lack of control, you absolutely must treat yourself with compassion. Your body is trying to help you cope with the stress that you are navigating right now. It may sound crazy to approach something you don’t like about yourself with compassion, or make you fearful that if you are nice to yourself, you won’t be able to stop this unwanted behavior. However, self compassion is not self pity or making excuses for yourself; it is showing kindness to yourself despite your imperfections and recognizing that imperfection is part of being human (especially during times of stress and suffering). It feels like that critical voice within you, the one that tells you to have more discipline and probably some other not so nice stuff, will motivate you to change, but that shame only keeps you stuck in an emotional eating cycle. By showing yourself kindness and quieting the judgement, you can actually begin to encourage yourself, which will give you so much more power to make a change.

2. Identify Physical Hunger

You may be stress eating or overeating partly because you think you’re hungry when you’re actually not. Hunger is a physical sensation that starts in the body and then travels to the mind. However, if your mind has a lot going on and you’re not paying enough attention to your body, those signals can get turned around, and your mind starts telling your body you are hungry, even if the physical hunger cues aren’t there. Get really familiar with what hunger physically feels like for you. For me, it’s a hollow, empty feeling in my gut with some clenching, sometimes audible. Every time you have a thought about food, take a moment to ask yourself if you are feeling your hunger cues. If you think you are, have a glass of water and check back in with yourself in a few minutes, as often thirst is masked as hunger. If you’re not feeling hunger cues, and you still want to eat anyway, this is your body sending you a very helpful message, and that is: you need to care for yourself in some way right now.

3. Give Yourself the Care You Need

It may really feel like food is the way to give yourself the care you need, but even though food brings momentary pleasure and escape, eating when you aren’t hungry leaves you feeling physically ill and even more emotionally burdened, which is the opposite of self care. So when you get that message from yourself that you need something in that moment, start asking yourself (compassionately!) how you are feeling and what it is that you really need. It may be some fresh air, calling someone to vent, laying down for a few minutes, going for a walk, dancing it out, yelling into a pillow, asking someone for help, making a cup of tea, crying, etc. If you can’t figure out how you’re feeling or what you need, try writing out all of the thoughts that are flooding through your mind so that you can see them and sort through them more easily. If all else fails and you aren’t able to do any of this at that moment, just close your eyes and take 10 deep breaths – in through your nose, filling up completely, pausing at the top, and exhaling out through your mouth. Deep breathing like this will relax your nervous system, release endorphins that help you feel more calm, and activate the parts of your brain that allow you to think more clearly. Try to give yourself 15 minutes of self care, whatever that looks like, before deciding whether or not you’re going to eat.

4. Slow Down

Practice eating all of your meals as slowly and mindfully as you can. This is very important all of the time, but especially right now. Pleasure centers in your brain light up when you eat, and hormones release that allow you to feel satiated and content. If you are wolfing down your food and/or eating while multitasking, those chemical messengers in your brain aren’t activating fully, leaving you feeling unsatisfied or with strong cravings. Also:

  • Physical digestion starts with chewing. If you aren’t chewing thoroughly enough, your digestive organs have to do way too much work, causing all kinds of digestive upset, which leads to malabsorption of nutrients and decreased metabolism.

  • The hormone that signals to the brain that we’re full, leptin, takes about 20 minutes to fully activate. So if you’re eating a meal in less than 20 minutes, your chances of overeating are much higher.

  • When you eat quickly, your body perceives there to be an imminent threat (like a lion chasing you), which activates your sympathetic nervous system, or your fight or flight stress state. When you are in fight or flight, many things happen in your body: blood rushes away from your digestive system, causing decreased absorption of nutrients, your metabolism slows down to conserve energy to run or fight, and additional cortisol and insulin release, causing your body to store excess fat. Remember, your body is trying to protect you from this perceived potential threat.

You are likely already dealing with a bunch of stress right now, so do your body a favor and make meals a time of slowing down, savoring, and self care. Getting maximum pleasure and enjoyment from your meals will drastically reduce cravings and the desire to eat when you’re not hungry, as well as helping you maintain optimal health and weight during this time.

Here are some tips for how to practice slowing down:

  • Chew each bite until you can’t chew anymore. It might feel weird at first, but you will eventually get used to it.

  • Put the fork down in between each bite and take a sip of water between every few bites.

  • Close your eyes and truly taste the food you are eating. What are the flavors, the textures, the spices?

  • Take 5 long, deep breaths before you start eating to shift your body into its relaxed, parasympathetic nervous system.

  • Sit at the table, instead of in front of the TV or computer, to avoid mindlessly eating too quickly.

5. Create Routine

For most of us, our typical daily and weekly routines have been turned upside down, which is unsettling and can confuse the body, including hunger confusion. Do whatever you can to create some semblance of your normal routine, including regular meal times. Sticking to similar meal times each day will also help prevent the grazing mentality. Going to sleep and waking up at regular times, scheduling meals and daily movement into your calendar, and setting boundaries around TV time are a few ways to create structure.

6. Remember, You Are Not Alone!

While we are all experiencing this pandemic in different ways and under unique circumstances, the beautiful thing is that we’re all in it together. If you are struggling extra right now in your relationship with food, you are not alone. I am holding virtual sessions and I’d love to support you. Schedule a free consultation with me here.

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