We are living in a time of different circumstances for sure. If you, or your spouse, were working last month it’s now likely you/they are working longer hours, or working from home, or not working at all. If you have children who used to go to school, now they are home all day wanting to be entertained, educated, and fed. Not necessarily in that order. Everyone’s daily rhythms and routines have been disrupted, with no clear end in sight.
During times like this, it is normal to feel an increase in anxiety, fear, and stress.
Don’t be alarmed. This response is your brain doing exactly what it was designed to do, trying to keep you safe and alive. When we are under stress the sympathetic nervous system kicks in to “fight or flight” mode. It is a normal biological response that involves flooding the body with adrenaline in order to help us escape or defeat threats. We want our body to do this! Especially if we are being chased by a bear.
But, our system sometimes responds to threats that aren’t actually as serious or imminent, as if there was a real bear. Worrying about the global economy, viral infections, and how they are affecting you now or in the future can trigger the fight or flight response producing the same surge of chemicals in our body. The problem is, there is nothing physical to fight, and there is nowhere to flee.
Some people will attempt to “fight” by running to the grocery store and buying everything they can put in their carts. And I do mean everything. It is what is responsible for the panic around toilet paper, paper towels, and hand sanitizer.
Others will choose the “flight” option, and attempt to run away from the threat. They turn to food, alcohol, sex, entertainment, drugs, over-exercising, and over-working …. anything to avoid having to feel. These coping methods may temporarily give you relief, but the feelings don’t go away. They will be waiting for you.
Today there is no bear. Yes, COVID-19 is a danger but survival mode thinking will not save us. We need to put our primitive brain on pause, and let our higher brain get to work creating strategies and solutions that will serve us now and for when this is over.
Because this pandemic will end.
If you are feeling stressed from all the disruptions to your “normal” life, and all the demands that seem to be coming at you right now, it is easy to turn to food to take the edge off.
Food is just one of many options, but it’s not one that will serve your greater desires in the long run. Unless your desire is to gain weight.
A lot of people are stocking up on food. We do need food. However, doing so out of panic (lower brain) is different from doing so out of strategy (higher brain). Make sure that you are stocking up on items that actually support your health and your goals. Your brain will try to tell you that you need more ice cream, cookies, chips, etc. and maybe another freezer to hold it all.
I might know something about that. When I first heard that we would be staying home for weeks on end, the first thing I thought of was “we don’t have enough chocolate chips to deal with this crisis”. I am not kidding!
I have lost weight, found an eating strategy that works, and thought I had control of my emotional eating. And I did when circumstances were different. This is a new set of circumstances. My old habits for dealing with stress, anxiety, and worry reared their ugly head.
Maybe you can relate.
What used to be effortless now requires energy. It is energy worth expending.
When it comes to eating during stressful times, prioritize nutrition over calories. I know that it’s tempting to eat whatever is most convenient. Whether that is something packaged in the pantry, or your kids’ leftovers sitting on the table. Or even if it isn’t convenient you might decide to bake a batch of cookies! It seems that for many, being home all day has almost erased the traditional mealtimes of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Maybe you are grazing, snacking and grabbing just little bits of this and that all throughout the day rather than taking time to eat a nutritious meal.
There is a connection to what we eat and our ability to function at peak mental capacity.
“Diets high in refined sugars, for example, are harmful to the brain. In addition to worsening your body’s regulation of insulin, they also promote inflammation and oxidative stress. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function — and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.” https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626
This is not the time to abandon your nutrition.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford any further impaired brain functions or declining moods.
I know it’s tempting to just throw your hands and your habits in the air and hope when this situation is over that you can pick them up again. And maybe you will. But, using food to handle the stress you are experiencing is not the only option. It might be familiar, but that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.
When you don’t use food to make yourself feel better you learn that you can experience any emotion and that no emotion is as bad as you think it’s going to be. But you also don’t feel physically bad from overeating or eating food that isn’t supporting your nutritional needs. It is possible to feel stress and not respond to it with food, or attempt to dull it with any other substance or stimuli.
Question the way you are thinking about your eating habits and what it is creating for you.
If you have let your nutrition habits slide recently, what result has that created, and is that a result you want?
Again, full disclosure here: I don’t do this perfectly. I have gained weight in the last three weeks. Six months ago I was at my goal weight. I was determined to push my weight loss just a little further. What was once easy, in the last few weeks has become more difficult.
It’s easy to blame the pandemic. But I know the truth. The only thing that changed was my thoughts. Before the pandemic, I had thoughts that created feelings of confidence and empowerment regarding my food. After the pandemic, I had thoughts that felt out of control and uncertain. I felt uncomfortable in my mind and as a result, created discomfort in my body by eating things that were not fuel for my body. I have given in to those urges to eat something instead of feeling something often enough during this pandemic to see my progress reverse.
That feedback, in the form of movement on the scale, let’s me know that I am eating instead of feeling. It tells me that now is the time to slow down and pay attention to what is happening inside of me, with my thoughts, my feelings, and my actions. It tells me that it’s time to focus on solutions instead of problems.
If you find yourself in the same situation, don’t beat yourself up for it. That is not productive. What you can do is learn from it and start again. As many times as necessary.
I know what to eat. I know how to eat. I can choose to start again.
This is the time to take care of and nurture yourself. Because when you’re taking care of yourself mentally and physically you are less likely to turn to food to make you feel better. One of the fastest ways to fall back into an overeating habit is to let go of your basic self-care practices.
I’ve written about them before and you can read what my basic self-care practices are here.
I can usually find a correlation between my over-eating and at least one other self-care practice: staying up too late, not connecting with others, skipping exercise, not drinking enough water, and not getting up and getting dressed.
This is your life. You have dreams. You have goals. A global pandemic doesn’t change that.
If you need help, this is the time to ask for it.
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