My family and I have been in quarantine for approximately 14 days and already we have begun to run out of our cache of emergency junk food supplies. Already, two half-gallons of death by chocolate ice cream have been devoured, and as of 2pm today, our Pop-Tart reserves have diminished to a single lowly strawberry one that nobody wants but someone will eventually eat. It’s desperate times.
Perhaps it’s the isolation, perhaps it’s the stress of juggling work from home and caring for my 11-month-old son, or it could be that my fully stocked refrigerator is located three feet away from my “office.”
Any one of these could be what is causing my snacking levels to spike, according to Mindy Wallpe, Ph.D., HSPP, Licensed Psychologist.
“You can call it comfort eating, stress eating or emotional eating. It’s whatever headspace you are in,” Wallpe says. “Food is something easy to access that helps us avoid the things we are feeling such as anxiety, stress or boredom”.
Recognise that everything has changed
Avoidance seems pretty appealing when our homes are being rocked around the clock by the frightening truths of COVID-19. Given we’ve been subject to upheaval in every aspect of our lives, it’s no surprise the Pop-Tart shelf is running on empty.
“We all deal with stress in different ways,” Wallpe says. “Even if you had good coping skills—like a regular routine of physical activity, interaction with friends or reading a book—that routine has shifted. You are working from home now, and your pantry is in the same room as where you work.”
Prior to the quarantine, if an email got you down, a friendly chat with a co-worker might be enough to defuse the situation. With that outlet gone, the fridge has become our newest confidant and our most accessible friend. But while the proximity and deliciousness of your new colleague might seem inviting, it’s probably not the healthiest relationship to lean on right now.
“Once you recognise you are developing a habit that’s not beneficial, one of the best things you can do is check in with yourself and see how you are feeling,” Wallpe says. “Give that feeling a name and be present with that feeling.”
She suggests some helpful steps:
Identify your triggers
Keep track of those things that are making you feel overwhelmed. Is it the news? Is it social media? Is it a family member who can only talk about the pandemic? Whatever it is that is causing the stress, recognise it and create some distance between you and it for the time being. Remind yourself that you cannot control these people or things. Try to focus your energy on what you can do to lessen your stress that does not involve food.
Reestablish a routine
It may not look exactly like your pre-COVID life, but adapt as best as you can for your current situation. Set a daily alarm like you used to. Have set meal times. Schedule a daily check-in with a friend. Anything that provides stability or structure will be a comfort during these uncomfortable times.
Make a list of coping methods that bring you relief
Maybe it’s a mediation practice, going for a walk or nestling into a good book. You know yourself and what helps take the edge off. Jot those ideas down and refer back to them when you feel the anxiety—and the urge to head to the fridge—start to creep in.
imagine yourself riding the chaos like a wave. The wave will rise, it will crest and then it will recede. Ride this wave as best you can.
Hit pause before you hit the pantry
There is power in the simple act of slowing down for a moment of reflection. Wallpe suggests asking yourself if you are physically hungry or emotionally hungry. You might not know the answer right away, so make a deal with yourself to wait 10 to 20 minutes before going into the kitchen. While you’re on hold, perhaps refer back to one of your coping activities to help the time pass. These moments of pause will help you decide what you are truly craving—Cheetos or a hug.
Take time to honour the chaos
Recognise that the state of our world is insane. Give yourself the chance to grieve what has been lost, but also recognise that this too shall pass. Wallpe asks you to imagine yourself riding the chaos like a wave. The wave will rise, it will crest and then it will recede. Ride this wave as best you can. We don’t know when the peak will come, but it will come.
Based on her clinical experience dealing with eating and body image issues, Wallpe believes most of us will resume our normal eating patterns once the crisis has ended and routine and order is restored.
If you have a history of eating disorders
If you have battled anxiety or eating disorders in the past, or if you think you are engaging in binge eating now, you may need extra help to handle this situation.
Binge eating is defined as a pattern of consuming a much larger quantity than you would normally eat until you are uncomfortably full. People who binge often feel out of control and become secretive about their eating habits.
“If you have struggled with eating disorders or anxiety, diagnosed or not, this is an extra challenging time, and it’s easy to slip into old coping habits,.” Wallpe says. “Everything is exacerbated by COVID-19, and your normal ways of coping might not be enough.”
If you find yourself in crisis, reach out for help. While therapists’ physical offices might be closed, access to mental health professionals is still available. “[As a profession] we’re transitioning into telehealth, offering video conference or telephone calls,” says Wallpe. Most communities also have crisis lines open 24 hours a day if you are in need of immediate support.
While it might not seem like it at the moment, quarantine will not be forever. In the big picture of thinking, this is but a season. If your spring happens to include a Pop-Tart or six so be it, but before you grab a seventh, ask yourself if it’s what you really need. An indulgence here and there is not a crime, but consider carving out some time for a different type of self-care.