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Managing Emotional Eating During Quarantine

Managing Emotional Eating During Quarantine

We are living in extraordinary times right now.

The stress and fear most of the world is feeling right now is monumental.

People are sick, suffering and some dying, or people are afraid they or their loved ones will become sick, suffer and possibly die. People are losing their jobs or are worried about losing their jobs. There is a lot of strong emotion right now. Our emotions and appetite are biologically linked.

With all of the stress and anxiety people are living with on a daily basis right now, some may be eating less and many are eating more. Food, similar to alcohol, has a physiological affect on our minds and bodies. Food can be grounding, nurturing, fulfilling, calming, comforting, numbing, distracting.

How are you using food to cope right now?

Do you find yourself eating and realize you aren’t even hungry? Are you looking in the refrigerator for comfort? Boredom is also high on the list of reasons people eat when not hungry, and I imagine that is occurring now, more than ever in our lifetime.

A significant aspect to emotional eating is control. When the whole world literally feels out of control, as it does now for many, food is the one thing we can control. Ironically, with emotional eating, this often ends up leading us to feel out of control, but that is not coincidence.

Our minds are designed to help protect us, so for many people, when they want to avoid dealing with or feeling something (for example, the fear related to a pandemic medical crisis), the mind will divert you to something like food and eating.  This serves to distract you so you will be focused on feeling out of control and worried about your eating (which, in theory, you can control) versus staying focused on feeling anxious about what you can’t control (which right now feels like everything).

If you’re nodding your head and relating to any of what I’ve said so far, now you want to know how to fix this.

First, you have to be aware that you are eating emotionally. We cannot change what we don’t acknowledge. So when you start thinking about food and eating, the first question is always “Am I physically hungry?”. If the answer is yes, you eat.

If the answer is no, then you have to ask yourself a few follow up questions such as:

  • Why do I want to eat?
  • What will eating do for me?
  • Am I bored? Anxious? Worried? Sad? Tired? Dehydrated? Irritable? Angry? Scared? Stressed? (Maybe all of the above)

So if you identify that you want to eat because you are bored, make a list of all the things you can do instead of eating when you are bored.

If you want to eat because you are tired go to bed or take a nap if possible, if that is not possible, do some light stretching which will get blood moving and provide some extra energy. Do five minutes of yoga, any yoga pose where you open up the chest is invigorating for the body.

If you want to eat because you’re sad/anxious/depressed/scared call a friend or relative and express how you’re feeling, write about it, listen to a guided meditation for the emotion you’re feeling, or just for relaxation.

Feelings just need to be acknowledged and released, once you do that you won’t have a need to eat emotionally any more. I have listed below some ideas of things to do instead of eating when you’re not hungry.

This is not an exhaustive list, and I encourage you to create your own list of things to do instead of eating. It’s best to have the list written ahead of time because in the moment you will probably think “I know I’m supposed to do something else right now instead of eat, but I can’t remember what, so screw it, bring on the cookies”. If it’s helpful, hang up the list on the refrigerator or somewhere you will see it to remind you.

List of things to do instead of eat, when not physically hungry:

  • Talk to a friend/relative about how you are feeling
  • Write down how you are feeling
  • Exercise/movement/dance
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Watch a funny video, or look at a cute animals
  • Read a book
  • Go outside for some fresh air
  • Move to a different room in your house
  • Take a bath or shower
  • Do your nails
  • Color, knit, crochet (or look at videos to learn how to)
  • Arts and crafts/scrapbook
  • Help somebody else
  • If you have a pet, play with and/or pet them
  • Drink a glass of water (you may just be a little dehydrated)
  • Take a nap
  • Watch your favorite show or movie
  • Comfort yourself with a warm, fuzzy blanket
  • Light some candles and/or diffuse essential oils
  • Virtual tours/painting classes/learn a language (right now there are a lot of virtual options)

If you have slipped into judgement mode, being hard on yourself for realizing you eat for these reasons. You are not alone! People use food in this way because it temporarily works, it does distract you, it does numb your feelings (until you’re done eating), it does give you energy if you’re tired.

But…..if you eat when you are not hungry or eat past fullness, you will feel worse physically than before you ate and possibly feel guilty, ashamed, out of control, etc. It’s important to think about how you will feel after you eat. Emotional, mindless eating is based on instant gratification, it’s all about feeling better right this minute. The trouble is that relief is fleeting and has emotional and maybe physical consequences that last much longer.

It’s crucial to realize that you can’t expect yourself to “just stop” eating emotionally.

When we use an unhealthy coping skill and want to stop, we have to replace it with something else. It rarely works long term to shame ourselves into changing a behavior. We need to acknowledge the need it is trying to fulfill and then find a better way to meet our needs.

Emotional eating is a struggle for many people. If you or a loved one could use some help with this, please contact me. Emotional eating does not feel good, and you deserve to feel good.

Kathy Most
Therapist in Westfield, NJ
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