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Tips for Handling Stress, Stress-Eating, during COVID-19 Pandemic

A varied assortment of fruits and vegetables.
By Dominga Wilson-Moreno

COVID-19 has forced us to make drastic changes to our behavior—that is no secret. Lives and other precious things have been lost, some still hang in the balance, and we continue to be reminded of the importance of remaining vigilant in protecting ourselves, families, and one another from a virus that seems to know no bounds. Many of us have been sequestering at home for weeks now, we are expected to wear masks when venturing outdoors, and sanitizer is now or may become our constant companion; gone (at least for now) are handshakes and standing less than six feet apart (with donned masks) from not only strangers, but colleagues, friends, and anyone who doesn’t live with us.

So how do we cope? How do we continue manage these and other stressors that may arise in our quest to keep ourselves, families, and one another safe? How do we continue to face life without packed homes, stadiums, theaters, community centers, and restaurants? What can we do when reading, binging TV, puttering about the house, catching up on sleep, or reveling in doing little to nothing isn’t fun anymore? How do we find the balance between staying safe and not becoming or plunging deeper into feelings of anxiety, depression, or the like? What if food has been or is becoming our refuge?  USU’s Dr. Marian Tanofsky-Kraff, professor of Medical and Clinical Psychology, and Dr. Natasha Schvey, assistant professor of Medical and Clinical Psychology, offer guidance on stress, mood, eating, and coping mechanisms.

A forest with sun coming through the trees.
Going outside or taking a walk in a
peaceful place may help to reduce stress.
(Uniformed Services University photo)
The very mention of the word stress can evoke ineffable tension in the body, mind, but perhaps it is not without possible merits. “Stress, broadly speaking,” according to Schvey, “occurs when the demands of a situation exceed our perceived ability to cope with them. Stress isn’t always a bad thing—it’s what enabled our prehistoric ancestors to run away from a sabretooth tiger, and what can power our graduate students through an all-night study session. However, the stress response involves a number of different mechanisms in the brain and body, such as the release of stress hormones, and over time, prolonged stress can result in wear and tear on the body.”

This wear and tear on the body and mind can constellate varying emotions, as Schvey points out.

“Similar to stress, feeling sad and worried are appropriate responses to certain situations. Certainly, the current reality will likely induce feelings of both in many individuals. Both depression and anxiety involve complex interactions of our body, brain, and behavior. However, prolonged feelings of depression and anxiety or emotions that feel out of control can become harmful and may signal a need to seek additional help or support.”

So if you find yourself feeling anxious or sad, you are not alone.

“Naturally, the frightening nature of the pandemic can cause symptoms of anxiety and depression,” according to Tanofsky-Kraff.  “This will vary from person to person depending on whether they have adequate social support, know someone who has gotten ill from or lost their life to COVID. Loss of income and/or freedom can cause negative mood; the recognition that, at least for some time, we need to mourn how we used to live our lives.”

And while the management of our emotions is unique to us and our respective circumstances, our eating habits and mood can inform one another.

“Depending on the person,” Tanofsky-Kraff explains, “mood can cause some people to eat more and others to eat less. This is not problematic if it is occasional. However, too much or too little intake can lead to health problems.”

One of the ways in which we can avoid the pitfalls of emotional eating is to understand what it is. Tanofsky-Kraff describes stress eating as “eating to cope with feelings of anxiety or worry as opposed to eating in response to hunger cues. Often people who stress eat are using food to make themselves feel better or reduce stress. In the end, it is typically not effective.”

Bananas, oranges, a pineapple in a bowl next to a plate with chips and cookies.
Fruits and vegetables are excellent snacks, but don't beat yourself up if you go for chips or cookies; just put them into a
small bowl to satisfy the craving without overeating. (Photo by Sharon Holland)

Schvey offers six tips for staving off the urge to stress eat:

1. Try to take a moment to ask yourself if you’re truly hungry or if you’re looking to satisfy an emotional urge. A good gauge of this is: if you’re really physically hungry, you could imagine yourself eating an apple to tide yourself over. If an apple sounds unappealing, then you may be eating more in response to stress or for comfort.

2. Don’t deprive yourself! We’re more likely to stress eat if we’ve been restricting what we’re eating all day. This can be draining by the end of the day and could lead to overeating or binge-eating. Try not to eliminate any foods altogether or engage in restrictive dieting practices, as they often backfire.

3. Cut yourself some slack. We are enduring a collective trauma right now and it is important to be compassionate with yourself. If you find yourself reaching for the M&Ms or chips, do not beat yourself up. Instead, try serving yourself a handful or two in a nice dish or bowl, rather than eating directly from the bag. That way, you still satisfy your craving, but are less likely to overeat.

4. Choose higher quality stress eating foods. If you feel like you need to snack on something to get you through a stressful part of your day, then consider upgrading your snack. Air-popped popcorn is a great choice, as the serving size is generous and you can satisfy the urge while getting in plenty of whole grains and fiber. Other snackable options might include: trail mix or nuts, freeze-dried fruits or vegetables. Even a few pieces of gum or a flavored seltzer can sometimes do the trick if you’re not actually hungry.

5. Find an alternative. If you’re roaming the kitchen cabinets in search of a snack, try to find an alternative activity until the urge has subsided. For instance, FaceTime a friend, go for a walk, take a shower, or just go to another room of the house since the visual cues of the kitchen can make us more likely to eat.

6. Just do it. It is ok (and normal) to stress eat once in a while. It becomes problematic if it is recurrent or if it starts causing significant distress or rapid weight gain. Arguably the feelings of guilt and remorse afterwards are more harmful than the act of stress eating itself, so if you had an episode of stress eating, it can be beneficial to accept that it happened, remind yourself that it is normal and perhaps expected given the circumstances, and then try tips 1-5 next time.

Being mindful of and working toward developing other healthy coping mechanisms can also be useful for managing our stress during this pandemic. What seems to be an integral component of this is taking a gentle approach.

“Above all, I encourage everyone to be kind to themselves,” Schvey notes.  “We are undergoing an unprecedented and historic collective trauma. One aspect of this is lowering the bar, both personally and professionally. This can be challenging as most of us at USU are over-achievers by nature, but there is an enormous mismatch between our current reality and the usual expectations we set for ourselves.”

A virtual hangout with 9 people involved.
Physical distancing does not mean social distancing. A virtual game night or happy hour with friends can satisfy our need
for connection to avoid loneliness. (Screenshot by Joseph Tang)

Faced with no finite end to this pandemic, managing our stress may become even more imperative.  Schvey suggests the following:

1. Turn OFF the news. Yes, it’s important to stay informed, but we are consuming the news at alarming rates these days and it can result in added stress.

2. Remind yourself: we are required to PHYSICALLY distance, not SOCIALLY distance. Loneliness is a major threat to our health, so during this time, we need to get a bit more creative to ensure we are satisfying our biological need for connection. Try to set up regular virtual happy hours or catch-up sessions with friends, family, and colleagues. You can even host game nights on some video chat platforms.

3. Get outside (and if possible, get in some movement). It doesn’t need to be running a marathon; simply sitting outside or going for a leisurely walk while listening to favorite music or a podcast, or catching up with a friend, are all beneficial.

4. Try to establish a routine for yourself. We thrive on structure and consistency, so try to maintain a regular schedule during the week.

5. For many of us, the work day now extends into the evening and weekends, and the distinction between work and personal life is getting ever more blurred. Try to delineate the end of the work day and the beginning of personal or family time in a special way (e.g., lighting a candle, closing the laptop and putting it out of sight, turning off your phone alerts).

6. Focus on gratitude. Research tells us that people who express gratitude are happier and healthier. This can be keeping a small gratitude journal on the nightstand, sending a note of thanks or appreciation to someone out of the blue, or simply going around the dinner table and listing a few things you feel grateful for.

7. Find support. Fortunately, mental health professionals are at the frontlines of this crisis and most practices now offer virtual or telephone sessions with flexible hours. If you feel like you could use some extra support or coping strategies, you are not alone, and a licensed mental health professional can likely provide some relief in a few sessions.