EMOTIONAL EATING IN STRESSFUL TIMES
Are you beating yourself up for overeating during the coronavirus quarantine? Having a hard time sticking to a “healthy” eating plan? Worried that your emotional eating has gotten out of hand? Stressed out that your eating disorder recovery has slipped? IT’S OKAY!!! What we need more than ever right now is acceptance and self-compassion. These are important all the time, for all of us. But particularly in times of stress. Particularly for those who struggle with eating disorders and body image distress.
We Have Unrealistic Expectations About Our Eating Behavior
In all the movies about global disasters, the women somehow have perfect hair and eyebrows. Maybe a streak of designer dirt on their glowing cheeks, and toned, tan bodies. I've always known this was ridiculous. But now I notice the ways our own unrealistic expectations come into play during the coronavirus pandemic.
Yes, we’ve accepted that our “dystopian fashion” is less futuristic suits and more robes and sweatpants. Yes, we’ve pivoted our businesses and cancelled plans from coffee dates to the Olympics. And sure, we have more wiggle room when a friend hasn’t gotten back to us when they said they would.
But to some extent, we still have Hollywood expectations. We want to be to become the Bridget Jones in the second montage, where she exercises and reads empowering books. Not the first one where she seems to overeat ice cream and cries at rom-coms. But unlike a movie, we can’t just fast-forward to the parts we like.
Why We Emotionally Eat: Food=Comfort and Safety
Although we can’t skip over the difficult parts of our own pandemic “montage,” we can hit pause. Maybe we could even rewind a bit to understand what might be coming up for us. Why are we so snacky when we’re unsure, isolated, and anxious?
If we hit the rewind button to revisit our first few experiences of food, it makes a bit more sense. When we were babies, eating was inextricably tied with comfort, love, and connection. We had the sense that we were important and cared for no matter what scary stuff was happening in the world.
And now the “scary stuff” in the world is a deadly virus instead of the family dog. But we are still wired to associate food with comfort and security.
If we rewind further, to our evolutionary ancestors, we can understand that this wiring runs even deeper. Cavewoman Lucy about extreme weather, migration, disease all which came with less available food. So, as soon as the tribe got a whiff of something uncertain, we evolved to respond by eating more than we were hungry for. Overeating literally saved our lives when resources were scarce! This might explain why we have the urge to overeat when we are uncertain today. It might also explain why cave paintings usually depict bison and hunting tools instead of #dietstartstomorrow.
Why We Emotionally Eat: Food=Connection
So I think you get the point that eating is a deeply-wired fast-track to feelings of comfort and connection. Now let’s add to that the way our experience of food is also woven into our transitions, milestones, and interactions with others. Depending on family dynamics and cultural practices, an individual’s relationship with food might conjure celebration, shame, solace, and everything in between. And at a time like this, when we don’t even know what day it is and we don’t have contact with our communities, food is helping us bridge the gap and mark transitions, from the end of a workday to a big anniversary.
In fact, I wrote a blog post back in more, uh, normal times about emotional eating as a clue to what we’re really wanting in terms of social interactions. This shocks many of my clients. They've grown up to believe that overeating is a sign of laziness, weakness, or some sort of character flaw.
Still, what good does that insight do in today’s world? It’s not like we can fulfill our craving for connection anyway!
Turns out, this insight can do quite a bit of good.
The Gift of Emotional Eating
Research on trauma (and make no mistake, Covid-19 is a collective trauma) shows that in the face of something unknown, simply being able to acknowledge our feeling of disconnect can help us feel more grounded and in control. Our tendency when we feel confused, anxious, and scattered is to look for information that we think will fix those feelings. We might think, “Once I know when my state will open and I can return to work, then I’ll feel less scattered.” And maybe so, but that’s giving an external event a lot of power!
What if, instead, we recognize our feelings with acceptance? It might look more like, “Okay, I’m scattered, confused, anxious … This is disconnect. Deep breath in …. Deep breath out … ”
I encourage a similar mindfulness approach with clients who struggle with eating and body image issues. It might seem counter-intuitive, but allowing a feeling to be there, and even having compassion for it, does not make the feeling more powerful. Instead, it gives them the distance to be able to understand themselves apart from the feeling.
Let’s say, for example, that overeating leads to feelings of anxiety, urgency, and shame. Well, those feelings are pretty uncomfortable, so we might try to stifle them or drink them away. But if we step away from trying to fix them, if we notice that these feelings may be hard, but there’s nothing to do about them, we can actually spend our energy on other things.
I understand that this may be hard to believe because, trust me, I’ve heard all the protests in the book. Some worry that if they’re not hard on themselves, if they don’t shame themselves with calorie counts and “thinspiration,” they’ll get complacent and won’t be able to control themselves. But research shows the exact opposite. See, self-compassion validates the feelings that lead to overeating. It soothes the body and mind, and addresses the shame associated with binging. So it can actually help people feel more agency over their choices.
Let Yourself Go
So truly, the best thing you can do for your emotional health and your immunity is to be compassionate toward yourself no matter what. And if you gain weight from the stress of this pandemic, that’s ok. You’re doing exactly what your body was built for!
As an eating disorder therapist in Plano, Texas, I work with knowledgable dietitians who have educated me about the many benefits of food, even beyond the nutrients and energy it provides. So I propose that we reframe the phrase “I let myself go.” Instead of the critical implications of memes and other pop culture references that make fun of the idea of falling into disrepair, what if we celebrated letting ourselves go?
What if it meant that we were leaving ourselves be, trusting our deepest caveman instincts, or even missing a few workouts in the midst of a global pandemic? What if we recognized that maybe this isn’t the best time to try an elimination diet or stick exactly to your recovery meal plan?
Maybe we can think of our stress response right now as a test run for other times we might experience stress in the future. Hopefully not pandemic-level stress again. Perhaps we can look back on this time and see that we were okay NOT being okay for a while. Maybe we will better remember that eating and body image improvements do NOT occur on a straight line. Nor do the slips always happen gradually. Sometimes they feel like a freefall! But I believe we will remember the ability to offer ourselves compassion for life being really hard sometimes, and ending up just fine in the end.
So, if you find yourself struggling with the pressure to perform well in this time of intense stress, try letting go. Let go of the idea that your eating disorder recovery needs to look a certain way. Let go of the idea that emotional eating is bad. Let go of feeling broken. Give yourself a pat on the back for surviving this difficult time.
If you want help tapping into more compassion to help with overeating and emotional eating, I'd love to work with you! I OFFER VIRTUAL/VIDEO COUNSELING FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE!! If you’re looking for counseling in Plano, Texas contact me at 469-850-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org for a free 15-minute phone consultation. My name is Danesa, and we can see if we’re a good fit! I’m also happy to connect you to another great therapist in the area.
My specialties include eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating; overeating or compulsive eating, body image issues, anxiety and depression. My office is in Plano, Texas, and conveniently located near Frisco, Allen, and McKinney.