Here's why we stress eat — and how to break the cycle. 

By Dr. Jenn Mann
Updated Apr 22, 2020 @ 5:00 pm
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DEAR DR. JENN,

Ever since stay-at-home orders began to combat the coronavirus, I have found myself eating around the clock. I feel like I can’t stop myself from eating when I'm not hungry and overeating once I start to eat. I have had phases of my life where I found myself turning to food for comfort, but nothing like this. How do I put an end to the cycle — and find healthier ways to cope? —Eating My Way Through

DEAR EATING MY WAY THROUGH,

Our relationship with food is complex and emotional. It starts from the moment we take our first sip of breast milk or formula. Food is comfort, cuddles, and memories. It is drowning your sorrows in a pint of Hagan Daz after a breakup. It’s grandma’s homemade cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving. It’s chicken noodle soup when you are sick. It is a myriad of feelings and associations.

It makes sense that when we are under enormous stress (and what’s more stressful than an invisible highly contagious virus) we tend to turn to food for comfort, distraction, and self-soothing. When this happens, we tune out our body’s signals of hunger and satiation and just eat. We stop eating to satisfy a physical need and attempt to use food to meet an emotional one.

Sometimes it feels good in the moment. The food satisfies the need for distraction, comfort, or even excitement. But afterward, we feel bad about whatever we were feeling bad about to begin with and now, we may feel bad about what (or how much) we ate, too. This tends to create a negative cycle of: Feel bad, eat, feel bad, eat.

So what do you do to break the cycle? Ahead, my tips based on my own personal experience overcoming emotional eating, plus decades of clinical experience treating people with eating issues as a therapist.

1. Tune in to your physical hunger.

The desire to eat to soothe an emotional needs can be strong, so it's worth going back to the basics of physical hunger. It's Think of your hunger on a scale from 0 to 10. 5 is neutral: You are not hungry and you are not full. 4 is a little hungry, you may be having pangs of hunger. 3 is solidly hungry. 2 is ravenous, don’t let yourself get here. 1 is empty. 0 is so starving you might faint. On the flip side, 6 is satisfied. 7 is full, 8 is stuffed. 9 is very uncomfortable, and 10 is sick to your stomach. Try to wait to eat until you are a solid 3, and stop when you are a 5 (neutral) or a 6 (satisfied) as opposed to stopping when you are full or stuffed.

2. Be gentle with yourself.

If you think that you have to be perfect, you are far more likely to overeat (“I already blew it, I might as well eat the rest of the pint"). But it doesn't need to be so black and white. Be gentle when you slip. Realize that when you turn to food, you are trying to do your best to get through a difficult moment. Focus on being kind to yourself, rather than beating yourself up.

3. Get to the bottom of your feelings.

There is so much to be stressed about right now. Try to pinpoint what is causing you the most anxiety so you can try to address it, rather than eating over it. Keep a food journal and focus on what you are feeling when you are eating. Notice any patterns that come up. Do you find yourself wandering to the fridge every time you watch the news? It may be time to change the channel. Feeling blocked? Reading a book like Intuitive Eating or Breaking Free From Emotional Eating can help.

4. Be a conscious eater.

Now is the time to spend hours making your favorite comfort foods and baked goods you never have time for during non-quarantine life. Put that same time and mindfulness into eating your food, too. Turn off the screen and eat without distraction. Allow yourself to really taste your food. Enjoy the texture. Take the time to notice where on your tongue you taste the flavor. Use all of your senses.

5. Practice good self-care.

If you are someone who is used to turning to food and difficult moments, breaking the connection between food and feelings can be very challenging. You are accustomed to using food to cope. At first, nothing will feel as good as the food did. But with time and patience, you will learn to do other things instead of turning to food during these challenging times. I have a list of 150 different self-care activities that you can try in my No More Diets app. A few that can help right now?

  • Get at least 8 hours of sleep
  • Fill up your water bottle several times a day to stay hydrated
  • Do yoga at home
  • Walk or run outside daily, while keeping your distance
  • Connect with family and friends on FaceTime
  • Try a screen-free activity, like a puzzle, boardgame, knitting, or coloring book
  • Dance and sing to your favorite songs

The Bottom Line

We're living through an anxiety-inducing time. Our primary concern should be worrying about staying safe, not gaining weight. That means it's completely okay if your eating looks a bit different than it did pre-coronavirus or to find comfort with your favorite foods. With that said, eating solely as a means to relieve stress can prevent you from truly dealing with your emotions — and can make you feel even more out of control during an already uncertain time.

If emotional eating is an issue that has come up before in your life that has never fully been dealt with, now can be a great opportunity to learn some new tools to overcome it. If you find you are struggling on your own and don't currently have a therapist, know that many providers are offering virtual support and therapy groups that can help.

The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.