If you’ve felt an uptick in urges to munch and crunch your way through the day since COVID-19 has revamped our lives, you’re not alone. It’s hard enough not to fall prey to emotional and mindless eating in the best of times. Enduring skyrocketing stress while hunkered down, we need compassion for what we’re experiencing and a redoubling of attunement to emotions and appetite regulation in order to stay healthy and sane.
How can we not feel overwhelmed when seemingly overnight our usual host of worries has been transformed into inconceivable horrors: ourselves or loved ones succumbing to COVID-19, losing our jobs and financial assets, and wondering when this nightmare will end? As our stress ramps up and routine pleasurable, relaxing activities are cut off one by one, it’s natural to experience feelings of extreme loss of control so that the mere act of eating seems like a magical antidote to combat our sense of powerlessness.
During home isolation—alone, with roommates or family—we may initially try to stay busy to keep anxious thoughts and feelings at bay. But as boredom and edginess set in, it’s easy to seek solace in the trifecta of sugar, fat, and salt to lift sagging spirits, soothe gnawing angst, or ward off boredom. Aside from anxiety, isolation may heighten loneliness, depression, and despair, driving emotional eating, which increases shame, remorse, and self-hate, substantially exacerbating low mood.
Slim pickings’ when grocery shopping can seem like the end times, causing us to feel deprived, resentful, and angry when we can’t buy foods we love. We might rebel against perceived deprivation by sneaking or bingeing on “forbidden” foods we believe are “bad.” When we do get our hands (or mouths) on foods we love, in a last-supper panic, we may greedily polish them off.
Fortunately, five simple strategies will teach you how to stay (relatively) sane around food when self-isolating.
1. Manage your thoughts, emotions, and self-talk. Be honest about the challenges you face when it’s just you, the Häagen Dazs, and too much or too little to do. Don’t kid yourself that things somehow will be better this time if you know you’re inclined toward emotional or mindless eating. Manage your thoughts by choosing which ones to invite in and which ones to leave on the doorstep. Keep tabs on your emotions and deal with them appropriately. Develop a mantra to repeat gently but firmly whenever non-hunger food cravings erupt, such as, “I’ll find a better way to take care of myself.”
2. Have open discussions. If you live with others, start a frank conversation about why it’s unhealthy for anyone to make food their go-to emotional regulator. Set a tone of positivity and compassion and avoid bossiness, condescension, and shaming, which might set off secret or rebellious eating. Brainstorm how you can help each other around food but avoid taking responsibility for the eating of other adults: everyone needs to keep their eyes on their own plate.
3. Enjoy food. Try to find pleasure in whatever you’re eating. Don’t complain and obsess about the foods you don’t have that you wish you did. They may be out of stock now, but they’ll be back someday. Be grateful that you have food to eat. Enjoy occasional sweets and treats by eating them mindfully, joyfully, without guilt or shame, and stopping when you’re full or satisfied.
4. Enjoy non-food activities. The best gift you can give yourself or others is engaging in valuable and pleasurable pursuits. Structure time to include them—catch up on favorite TV shows, clean your living quarters, relish a leisurely home-cooked meal, spend time outside, start a project, and put in a satisfying day’s work of accomplishing something. Make sure you have sufficient structure and freedom, mindfulness and mindlessness to give your life balance and enough pleasure that you don’t seek treats to brighten your day.
5. Eat or tweet. To maintain awareness of how much you’re eating, pay strict attention without dieting. Because you’re more likely to overeat when you’re distracted, don’t eat meals or snack in front of the TV or when your gaming, texting, surfing or emailing. You have a choice. You can focus on your device, or you can eat; you just can’t do both at the same time and expect a happy ending.
In sum, if you’re used to turning to food to cure the blues or the blahs, use the home-bound time to radically change your eating habits by seeking out heartfelt passions and pleasures, learning how to manage stress and distress effectively, and employing the power of positive thought selection and self-talk to forge a healthy relationship with food and your body. Who knows? Years from now, you just might remember COVID-19 as the virus that helped heal your emotional eating problems.
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