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How to manage emotional eating during the pandemic

What is emotional eating? 

Emotional eating is when we consume food in response to feelings or emotional cues. It means that, rather than relying on physical hunger cues, we let our emotional experiences guide when, what, and how much we eat. With emotional eating, food is used to calm, soothe, numb, or push down difficult emotions.

How to manage emotional eating during the pandemic

It goes without question that COVID-19 and the measures put in place by governments across the world to manage the pandemic are eliciting a range of emotions from fear and panic, to grief and loss, boredom and anxiety. These emotions, coupled with spending days in our houses surrounded by food and the threat of food scarcity, may, of course, give rise to emotional eating, which can feel distressing and uncomfortable in and of itself. 

When we’re worried about the pandemic, feeling anxious about finances or feeling the effects of cabin fever, food can offer a short-term relief. That’s because eating certain foods causes a spike in the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin helps to promote appetite regulation, sleep and mood whilst dopamine is linked to motivation and reward. 

However, it’s unlikely to help us feel any less stressed, anxious or bored longer term. So whilst we might use it as a crutch, emotional eating isn’t an effective way of helping us manage our emotional experiences.

Emotional eating can become even more problematic when it is the only strategy that we have to manage our emotional experiences. Ideally, we want to have a range of different options available to us. 

How to support yourself with emotional eating during the COVID-19 pandemic 

1) Be kind to yourself 

In the face of a pandemic that has resulted in a lockdown, school closures and immense changes to our everyday normality, food and emotional eating is an understandable strategy to turn to in an attempt to soothe our emotions.

So first things first, be kind to yourself. Remind yourself that emotional eating is understandable considering the current situation, and you’re doing what you can.

Now, consider what you’d say to a friend who told you they were eating more than usual in response to stresses related to their job, home-schooling or relative’s wellbeing. 

Would you tell them they were an awful person? What would you say instead – to be kind? How might you reassure them? And what tone of voice would you use? Use this as a guiding point for how you talk to yourself.

2) Stick to a regular eating schedule 

One of the most important considerations with emotional eating is to make sure we are not just physically hungry. More often than not in therapy, we see individuals who think they are experiencing emotional eating when they are actually just hungry! 

Moreover, where we are hungry and there is an added emotional trigger, this creates the perfect storm for eating past the point of comfortable fullness.

Sticking to a regular eating schedule by eating 3 meals and 2-3 snacks that contain a balance of foods and food groups, for example, will be important to make sure that emotional hunger is not being mistaken for physical hunger. It also means that if the emotional layer is added, we are not ravenous for food already. 

Routine and structure can be really important ways of creating normality at home. It will also be important to make sure that these are adequate portion sizes and include foods that bring you joy. 

Falling into the trap of “perfect” eating is also a form of restriction. It makes sense then, that the more unhealthy or “naughty” foods will be the ones we emotionally eat. Give yourself permission to enjoy these as part of a varied and balanced diet, which can remove their “forbidden fruit” effect.

3) Identify your emotions

Try to identify what emotions are coming up for you. In response to the current pandemic, you may be experiencing a range of different emotions. 

If you are struggling to name your emotions, sometimes the emotional word wheel is helpful in identifying your emotions. Start on the inside and work your way outwards to try and label what you are feeling. 

(Emotional word wheel by Geoffrey Roberts)

4) What do you need? 

Once you have identified your emotion(s), you will arguably be better equipped in knowing how to support yourself. For example, if you are lonely or bored, instead of emotional eating you could do something like calling a loved one. If you’re stressed or overwhelmed, you might try doing something you find relaxing or speaking with a trusted friend. 

Ask yourself, what do I need in this moment? Is it food? Would a hot bath be better? Do I need to distract myself? Do I need some kind of release through exercise? Could I explore an online appointment with a psychologist or nutritional therapist? Remember that you can still have food – but there is also almost always a better way of coping.  

5) Distractions 

Experiencing our feelings all of the time can be exhausting, not least when we have kids in the house 24/7, or lots to do around the house, or lots of conference calls for work. 

Sometimes, rather than getting down to processing and understanding our emotions straight away, there may be times when it is more helpful in the moment to simply pick a distraction. Food is one distraction technique, but there are other techniques you could try. Some distraction techniques are: 

  • Calling a loved one 
  • Painting or filing your nails 
  • Going for a gentle walk 
  • Crosswords or Sudoku 
  • Netflix 
  • Journaling 
  • Mindfulness or relaxation exercises
  • Grounding techniques, such as naming 5 items you can see, 5 colours you can see, and so on. 

6) Build up your toolbox of helpful strategies

Food and emotional eating is a strategy that can always be in our toolbox, but other, more helpful strategies need to be added. These strategies could be ways to increase self-care or to relax, like mindfulness practices, hot baths and time spent cuddling pets. 

Sensory items may also help like stress balls or calming aromas from a candle or essential oils – all available online. 

Distraction techniques can help put space between feeling painful emotions and using food. For example, before turning to food, you could try something else first, for example you could commit to a hot shower, or a 5-minute guided meditation. 

7) Double reminder – be kind to yourself!