Stress eating

Are you eating your way through the pandemic?

May 1, 2020


In the midst of figuring out how to test for and treat COVID-19, an unofficial diagnosis is coming to the surface: The COVID #19. This isn't a social media reference, but a symbol for pounds. Think the Freshman #15 or the Seahawks-out-of-Superbowl-contention #12.

It refers to a tendency to eat more of less-healthy foods when we’re feeling unsure, disappointed or even relieved. To support wellness and self-care in these difficult times, I’m sharing the reasons for this.

I’m also sharing tools that can help all of us cope in ways that are (usually) better for our physical and mental health. And if you caught that “usually,” and if you read no further than this paragraph, I want to put my most important point here.

Have compassion for yourself

What we’re going through is difficult. We are scared, confused and anxious. It’s normal in times like these to turn to habits that help us feel better, even if only momentarily. Your brain is reaching for things that foster calm or happiness. Food can do that.

So, maybe we can sometimes just accept that. We can say “I feel bad and this [cookie, pizza, ice cream] helps me feel better.” We are giving virtual hugs to everyone we love these days. So why not give a virtual hug to your food-indulging self? It’s really, truly okay.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, the comfort we feel when eating these foods doesn’t last long. From a biochemical standpoint, sugary substances hit our brain hard. They bump up the natural, feel-good hormones that our bodies make — dopamine and opioids.

Dopamine is associated with feelings of motivation (“I got this!”), newness (“Oh, something different!”) and reward (“Good job, self!”). Opioids are associated with pain relief and happiness. In other words, for one brief and glorious moment, we feel great.

Shockingly, this brain activity is the same as what happens with people use cocaine or heroin (yikes). And as with those drugs, once that feel-good moment hits its peak, it crashes down.

That brings withdrawal symptoms — fatigue, irritability, poor concentration, depression and worry. In other words, the feelings you were trying to get away from to begin with. Serotonin, another happy hormone, comes down, too.

This whole process is in addition to the insulin surge that typically follows bingeing on sugar. And that brings down our mood and energy level. It also stores the extra sugar being eaten as fat.

And if we weren’t feeling bad enough already, over time the brain develops dependence, just like it does with cocaine and heroin. We need more and more sugar to get the same feel-good response. And our serotonin levels get lower and our waistlines get bigger.

In other words, despite our brain’s good intention to make us feel better, we feel worse. But it’s hard to remember that when a cookie, piece of pizza or dish of ice cream is at hand or, more likely, in our mouths. And that bring us to the next tip.

Pause before picking up any food or drink

Use that pause, even if it’s only a second, to ask yourself, “What am I feeding?” If the answer is, “I’m hungry” or “I’m feeding the fact that today was ridiculously miserable, and I choose to respond with this,” then go for it. Really.

But if in that moment you hear a voice that says, “I’m scared/lonely/anxious/confused/overwhelmed,” try to pause just a second more and ask yourself the following.

What does that emotion really need?

Maybe the answer to this question is, “Duh, it needs this [cookie, pizza, ice cream].” In which case okay, go for it. Really. But maybe the answer is that you need a good cry, or a walk, or a nap, or a FaceTime with a friend or someone you’ve been worried about.

In that case, listen, listen, listen to the answer and your inner knowledge of what you need to feel better. It can be difficult to listen, and even more difficult to respond to what you hear.

These non-food responses require energy, or planning or feeling uncomfortable feelings. And in our moments of just wanting to feel better right now, eating that [cookie, pizza, ice cream] is so much easier.

But with intention and practice, the alternatives to emotional eating can get easier, and even become a habit in themselves. Which brings us to my next action item.

Plan ahead

Keep a list in your pocket or phone or on your pantry door of things that make you feel better without the crash. Then look at that list every day so that it comes easily to mind in a rough moment.

Talk to a friend or coworker and agree to call or text each other every time you feel the urge to eat in response to emotions that could be better fed. Decide to not bring your most binge-worthy items into your house. Or at least make them hard to get to.

Put a note of self-love or even a smiley face on the packaging of these items. Eat outside in the sun or on a walk. Anything to encourage pausing and reflecting can help. This can also increase the chances of choosing something more aligned with what you really need.

If these strategies don’t work with your brain’s need to feel good now, take a deep breath when it’s over and return to compassion. You’ve never been a health care provider (or parent, or child or friend) in the middle of pandemic before.

Your brain doesn't have any practice processing this. And it’s naturally going to run to anything that will help all this feel less challenging, if only for a minute. This is normal, and it’s OK — usually. And if it’s not OK, you will know it.

You will feel depression or worry beyond the internal scolding of “I shouldn’t have eaten that.” Or maybe your clothes won’t fit anymore. Or your doctor notices that your blood pressure or blood sugar numbers are rising. In that case, remember this final tip.

Find help

In the dark moments of emotional eating, it’s easy and normal to feel that you’re the only person who can’t get a handle on this. So many moments of overeating happen in private — after the kids are in bed, when your partner isn't home or when you're driving.

This brings with it a sense of shame and secrecy. For kicks, Google “emotional eating” or search for it on Amazon. Do page after page of websites, articles, books, podcasts and blogs exist just because you can’t figure this out? You know the answer to that.

For now, know that emotional eating is not a sign of personal weakness or lack of will power. It’s a normal response to stress driven by biochemical and hardwired brain processes.

We can practice and improve on managing those processes in better ways. But in the end, we all deserve compassion for doing our best, whatever that may look like for each of us.

Learn more about behavioral and medical weight management at The Polyclinic. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Johnson, call 1-206-860-5499.


By Kristen Johnson, MD

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The information provided is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for professional health care. You should consult an appropriate health care professional for your specific needs.