The Coronavirus pandemic has presented stress for almost everyone in different ways, whether it’s financial worries, home schooling the kids, being stuck indoors, or simply the threat of us or someone we love becoming infected with the virus. It’s no wonder that many of us are eating in response to stress, which is a very common type of emotional eating cue.

A little bit of stress eating that happens irregularly is usually not an issue, however it might be something to work on if you answer yes to any of these questions:

  • Do stressful situations I encounter lead to frequent overeating?
  • Is eating my only way to deal with stress?
  • Is it affecting my mental or physical health?

Why do we eat in response to emotions?

Food can be one of the easiest and most immediate ways to make ourselves feel better, not just when we’re stressed, but also when we feel tired, depressed, angry or lonely. Eating as a result of stress or other emotions tends to be an automatic instinct – something bad arises and before you know it, you’re reaching inside the fridge or cupboard looking for a snack.

Eating in response to stress works as it’s ingrained into our coping strategies and biologically it helps to reduce the body’s stress response. A habit of emotional eating or stress eating starts because we know it makes us feel better. However, most people who do this regularly know all too well that we only feel better temporarily – it most often leaves you feeling worse than before.

The main cause of emotional eating comes from an inability to deal with uncomfortable emotions, moods and thoughts. If we haven’t learnt the skills to reframe these emotions, moods and thoughts, then we disconnect from ourselves because we don’t know how to handle them. Just like any addiction, food is also a way to disconnect from the pain we are experiencing in a number of ways:

  • Food serves as a distraction method, for example if you’re worried about an upcoming task or event, or want to forget about that argument you had with your partner, eating is a way to distract ourselves.
  • Food can help to suppress large emotions, because often we become focused on the feeling of fullness as a way to forget or suppress the way we are feeling.
  • Food can also be a way to fill a void in our stomach arising from emotions, as it creates a false feeling of fullness or wholeness.

How can I reduce emotional eating?

  • Track food & mood. Start to keep a food diary or eating awareness diary. This helps you to identify eating cues, moods, situations, events and people that lead to eating. Then, you can begin to find consistencies with what your eating cues are.
  • Address the emotional need. With any type of emotional eating, you need to address the emotional need. Emotional eating teaches us to push away negative feelings and emotions, but the cycle of emotional eating does not end until the need is addressed. Identifying the emotion is the first step, whether it’s stress, boredom, loneliness, fatigue, or sadness. For each of these emotions, it is important to find ways to deal with these feelings that do not involve food. There are a number of options you might have to widen your possible responses to feeling a certain way. Food may be of some help in the short-term, but it’s unlikely to be the long-term answer.
  • Self-Care. When you’re feeling happy, come up with a list of things that make you feel good. It takes time to shift your mindset from reaching for food to engaging in other forms of stress relief, so experiment with a variety of activities to find what works for you. It could be going for a walk, deep breathing, gardening, playing a puzzle, reading, having a bath, watching a movie, etc. The great thing is that there are plenty of ways to deal with stress that do not involve food.
  • Set up a healthy food environment. Surround yourself with healthy foods and try to limit your access to “comfort foods”. This can help to break the habit by giving you time to think before turning to food.
  • Eat regularly. We’ve all experienced “hanger” before; this occurs due to the drop in blood sugar levels if we haven’t eaten in a while. It’s much harder to make good decisions and change habits when you’re hungry and your blood sugar levels are low. Remember to eat a nutritious meal or snack regularly and take breaks throughout the day.

Managing stress during Coronavirus

To make matters worse, among many other long-term health outcomes, stress can also dampen the immune system making us more susceptible to infections and illness, which isn’t helpful in a time when we need to protect our bodies the most. Research also shows a good diet helps to support optimal immune function – if you have a poor diet, you set yourself up to get sick more often and for longer. The following tips may help to manage your stress which in turn can reduce stress eating:

  • Identify what is within your control and what isn’t. Recognise your options, alter your behaviour and do what is in your control to avoid needless stress. Being aware of what is stressing you out is an important step in managing your reaction to it.
  • Limit constant negative media commentary and talk about something else. It seems strange to think of a time when we didn’t have Coronavirus to talk about, and the constant exposure from the media and our own social networks may be increasing our stress. While it’s important to have accurate and updated information on Coronavirus, repeated exposure to the pandemic is actually increasing psychological distress. Choose only one or two trusted sources for critical updates and information, limit repeated exposure to stories, and be wary of reports on social media whose accuracy is questionable.
  • Breathe. It sounds too simple, but breathing is proven to help relax the mind and body and manage symptoms of stress through reducing your blood pressure and heart rate. An easy breathing exercise is the 3, 4, 5 technique. Three deep, long breaths in, hold for four and breathe out for five. If that doesn’t feel comfortable, you can create your own breathing rhythm, just ensure that your out-breath becomes longer than your in-breath.

Overcoming stress eating can be a very hard habit to break. However, as with any habit, it is a learned behaviour, and can become “unlearned”. Remember to practise self-compassion – feelings of shame and guilt often follow an emotional eating episode, so it’s really important to be aware of your self-talk, or it may continue to perpetuate the cycle of emotional eating.  Instead of beating yourself up about it, try to learn from your slip and use it as an opportunity to think about how you’ll manage it differently in future. It’s hard work, but in the longterm, not addressing emotional eating can take a huge toll on your mental and physical health. Now, more than ever, is an important time to manage our stress and take care of our bodies.