As the world continues to navigate the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are experiencing chronic stress. The fear, anxiety, and uncertainty about the virus—coupled with the increased isolation and challenging economic realities—have directly affected our mental and emotional well-being. When faced with the stress of an unfamiliar situation, some people may notice it affects their eating behaviors. Changes in our eating behaviors, such as emotional overeating or calorie restriction, may be utilized as an attempt to suppress or soothe distressing emotions.
Using Food as a Coping Mechanism
Disordered eating behaviors aren’t just about food or body image—these behaviors are often directly connected to coping with upsetting feelings. Disordered eating can temporarily relieve and reduce difficult emotions. However, this is a short-term solution as it is simply a distraction aiding in avoiding the root of challenging life stressors.
Dieting and disordered eating are characterized by eating behaviors that include:
- Calorie or meal restriction
- Skipping meals or certain foods
- Compensating behaviors such as compulsive exercise or laxative use
- Grazing (constant snacking throughout the day, but not eating complete meals)
These behaviors may be attempts to cope with strong emotional states or as a way to feel control during these current times of uncertainty. Additionally, fear around the availability, accessibility, and cost of food due to the pandemic may contribute to changes in eating patterns.
5 Tips to Normalize Eating Patterns
1. Don’t avoid uncomfortable emotions
Increase your emotional awareness. It is very tempting to want to avoid or suppress difficult emotions, but this doesn’t properly process the root cause of the situation. Emotional avoidance can actually increase the intensity of distressing emotions—practice approaching what you feel instead. Begin allowing yourself to feel your feelings separate from food, and seek to understand what they are trying to tell you.
2. Recognize your triggers
Become intentional about recognizing what drives any disordered eating behaviors. Notice the moments that trigger an urge to engage in these eating patterns. These can include arguments with your partner regarding financial decisions amidst the current global economic struggles, feeling lonely due to social distance restrictions, or the stress of working from home while also supporting your child through virtual schooling.
As you become clear about what is driving the eating behaviors, focus on attending to the trigger. View it as your body’s sign that there is a need to process the emotions related to the situation rather than coping via food.
3. Reach out for support
Utilize your support system as a way to feel connected and grounded. Most of us are feeling isolated from our routines and communities, which can increase stress, depression, and anxiety. Brainstorm ways to remain in touch with friends, family, and the greater community despite in-person limitations. It could even help schedule virtual meals with loved ones for additional support in normalizing eating behaviors.
4. Take it one day at a time
Be kind to yourself and remember that each day is a fresh start. If you recognize that you did not respond to your stressors in the most adaptive way and perhaps engaged in disordered eating, encourage yourself to begin again. Try to refrain from passing any harsh judgment on yourself. Being critical or beating yourself up will only increase those unhelpful feelings of guilt and shame. Instead, re-connect to your intentions and healthy eating patterns. Acknowledge the difficult emotions you are experiencing and validate that you can respond differently the next time.
5. Consume helpful media
We live in a society that perpetuates diet-culture, making it incredibly difficult to challenge any disordered eating behaviors that tempt us. One way to resist this is by being intentional about the media we consume. Start following anti-diet culture and body acceptance accounts on social media. Making this small change can help you feel less alone as you work to establish nourishing eating patterns.
We are in an incredibly stressful phase of life as we attempt to respond to the effects of the pandemic. And these strong anxieties and emotions may be affecting eating behavior, body image, and self-esteem. By utilizing the tips above and reaching out for support, it is possible to regain a sense of control and engage in behaviors that promote physical and emotional health.
Reach out to us at Pure Health Center to set up an appointment to speak to a therapist. We would be honored to provide support and skills to help you process the complex emotions that may be contributing to unhealthy eating behaviors. Connect with us today and schedule your first appointment through our online portal!