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Coronavirus: how stress could be driving you to overeat

Coronavirus: How stress could be driving you to overeat
Coronavirus: How stress could be driving you to overeat

Our world turned upside down with the arrival of COVID-19 in recent weeks. As the pandemic was unfolding, there was a sense of uncertainty and foreboding as we grappled with the ever-changing news updates and did our best to adjust to the constant hand washing, the social distancing, the lack of toilet paper. The landscape of our lives shifted on a daily basis, as many of the things we previously took for granted were suddenly restricted or taken away altogether.

As someone who is fascinated with human behaviour, I was interested to notice in myself a sudden overconsumption. An overconsumption of food (roasted almonds in particular). An overconsumption of media: Facebook, Instagram, news websites. All of which left me feeling tired, overwhelmed…and full.

I have to say, it took me by surprise. You see, I’m a wellness coach. Maintaining lifestyle balance and helping others to do the same is my thing. So how was it that I was suddenly mindlessly overeating and compulsively device checking? When I looked deeper, I saw it for what it really was: stress.

You’d think it would be obvious for us to realise when we’re stressed. But stress can be sneaky like that. Stress, it turns out, is not only a matter of how we feel emotionally or psychologically. Stress is a physiological response involving the brain, hormones, immune system and many other organs. And here’s the tricky part: we can experience it with no obvious awareness of its presence.

Research shows two of the things that universally cause us stress are uncertainty and the loss of control. For most of us, there has never been a time more uncertain, or more out of our personal control than the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So even though on the surface I felt I was managing okay - staying positive and taking the changes in my stride - underneath it all, the uncertainty of the situation and my lack of ability to do anything about it were actually stressing me out, and driving me to over consume. This was due, in part, to the function of the stress hormones our bodies release in times of real or perceived danger.

A primal response to a modern day problem

In an evolutionary sense, stress would most likely have meant we were facing some kind of danger of a physical nature, such as attack from a predator, fire or storm. In the presence of danger the body initiates a fight or flight response, releasing a cascade of hormones which prime our bodies to give us the best chance of survival.

Two of these hormones are adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline gives us a burst of energy, redirecting resources away from tasks such as renewal and digestion and into the limbs so we can use it to fight or flee. One of cortisol’s functions is to replenish the body’s lost energy stores afterwards, by increasing our appetite and laying down new fat reserves to replace what we used in our fight for survival. So I have cortisol to thank for drawing me back to the almond jar all day long.

Stress hormones can also cause us to be hyper-vigilant, seeking out information about the danger at hand, which is important if we’re facing a life threatening danger. Not so important for me however, self isolating in the peace and tranquility of the Adelaide Hills. Unfortunately, this pattern of hyper-vigilance can lead us into a spiral of increasing our stress, and elevating our stress hormones further, as it did for me as I continually checked the news for COVID-19 updates.

Once I became aware of what was driving my behaviour, it was time to turn some coaching strategies on myself. I did that by focusing my attention on my outer and inner environments.


Make healthy choices the easy ones

Under times of stress, we don’t want to be relying on willpower to make the right choices for ourselves. Willpower is like a muscle that gets easily exhausted, which is why it’s so hard to stick with your good intentions when you’re feeling tired or worn out. So set yourself up for success by making healthy choices the easiest ones available to you – and this may mean modifying things for the time being. 

For me, this meant that roasted almonds are off the shopping list for now, along with peanut butter and other rich foods that I might be tempted to overindulge in. It’s simply easier for me if they’re not there for the time being. Instead, I keep the fruit bowl filled with lots of fresh, colourful fruit, and take something from there if I feel like snacking.

Do your menu planning

Think about the foods you actually want to be eating throughout the day and week, making sure you have an abundance of fresh, plant-based foods to choose from. Plan your meals and snacks for the week. (A program like this one makes it super easy)

Make conscious choices - and savour them

Choosing your foods ahead of time doesn’t have to mean forgoing treats altogether. Treats are not necessarily the bad thing. The key is to make a conscious choice about what you’re happy to eat, and build those treat foods into your day in a way that allows you to really savour them and get the biggest experience from the smallest amount of food.

When we really pay attention to any pleasure we’re experiencing, the pleasurable aspects of that experience are enhanced and our treat becomes SO much more of a treat. This is in complete contrast to eating when distracted, say, while watching a movie, when we can put away half a bowl of popcorn without really noticing. Try it yourself with something simple like a raisin, focusing your entire attention on every sensation of the experience – the texture, the juiciness, the flavours. Notice the way the flavours shift and transform as you chew. It will blow your mind when you see how sweet and delicious they can be when you really tune in and notice.

Make a shopping list & stick to it.

Once you've planned your meals for the week, make a shopping list and do your shopping with a full tummy – not while you’re hungry. Shop to your list, resisting the urge to throw any extra treat foods into your trolley. If you’d rather not eat it, don’t buy it.

Create routines to support yourself

Health behaviours tend to spiral upwards or downwards. When you’ve exercised and are feeling good you’re more likely to choose something nourishing. When you’re feeling down and in a slump, unhealthy foods can feel more appealing. So if you’re working from home while self isolating, like I am, create a daily routine for yourself, getting up, exercising and having meals at consistent times, just as you would in a normal work day.

Maybe for you it’s not food, it’s something else, like over consuming current affairs like I was, which is adding to your stress. In this case, you might like to create some routines or limits about how often you check in. For myself, I decided to read (rather than watch) the news once a day, and not check it again until the next day…and I have to say I feel so much better for it.

So take a look around your home environment, identify your pitfalls, and set about making changes that support your wellness.


What are you really hungry for?

As well as attending to our outer environment, it’s important to look within ourselves and see what’s going on under the surface. As with my experience of stress, it’s not always obvious.

Whether we like it or not, food will always be associated with our deeper human needs and hungers. Our brains are wired that way from our first day in the world, so it’s natural to try and comfort ourselves with food. As a tiny baby in our mother’s arms, our earliest experiences of love and nourishment were completely entwined; in many ways, food can feel like love. This is even further enhanced if you’ve ever been deprived of either.

In addition to that, there’s the simple fact that eating is pleasurable. Eating tasty food, particularly those foods high in sugar, salt and fat, fires up the pleasure centres in the brain giving us a little rush of the 'reward' hormone dopamine, which can make us feel better in the short term. As a result, boredom, loneliness or anxiety can all lead us to find ourselves snacking away without any actual hunger as we look to improve our emotional state.

Look within before looking in the fridge

If you find yourself drawn to the fridge, have a glass or water and check in with yourself. Mentally scan your body and notice if you’re actually feeling hungry right now. Do you have that gnawing, hollow feeling in your stomach indicating real hunger for food? Or are you really feeling anxious, lonely, bored? Noticing where in your body you’re feeling sensations can help you to identify what’s driving your choices.

If you do notice another reason than hunger, take a moment to address the emotion in the way that will actually help. For example, if you recognise anxiety in yourself, do something physical to release some of those stress hormones building up in you. If it’s loneliness you notice, reach out to someone. If you find this hard to do, think about someone who might be struggling even more than you right now and check in with them. Compassion can be a powerful tool to get us out of thinking about ourselves and our own problems. Kindness feels good.

Make time for mindfulness

It might seem counterintuitive to prioritise a daily mindfulness or meditation practice in your day when things have slowed down or come to a grinding halt. But it’s never more important than when we’re facing challenges like we are right now.

As well as calming our stress hormones, the practice of meditation also gives us greater insight, known as introspective awareness, into the messages our body is giving us, so we can make the adjustments needed to bring things back into balance. There are lots of good meditation apps out there - my personal favourite is Insight Timer, which has thousands of free meditations to choose from so you can find a style that suits you perfectly.

The COVID-19 has been and continues to be a deeply challenging and life altering experience for us all. But even in the face of uncertainly and loss of control, in each and every moment we still have the opportunity to look within and make a choice. The choices we make in these moments can either lift us up or drag us down. So I’m doing my best to choose gratitude over lack, compassion over selfishness, and love over fear - and remembering to be kind to myself when I slip up.

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