We are living through one of the craziest times in history. This pandemic has cost so many so much, from loved ones to jobs to homes to everything in between. We are in uncharted territory.
With so much unknown and countless ups and downs over the course of the past year, every emotion on the human spectrum has been at play, at all levels of intensity. Grief, stress, worry, fear, anxiety, sorrow – you name it. To say it’s been an emotional rollercoaster would be an understatement. And how have many people been coping with these emotional stressors during the pandemic? FOOD.
Here’s how it goes…
I’m bored- I eat
I’m anxious- I eat
I’m lonely- I eat
I’m scared- I eat
I’m sad – I eat
I’m broke- I eat
According to a study by the American Psychological Association, 61% of adults report experiencing undesired weight changes since the start of the pandemic. What’s more, 42% say they gained more weight than they intended. Sleep patterns have been affected as well, with two in three Americans reporting either sleeping more or less than they would like. Nearly a quarter of American adults say they’ve been drinking more alcohol to cope with their stress. Perhaps most striking of all, Gen Z adults are reportedly the most likely generation to have worsened mental health compared with pre-pandemic days, with 46% of Gen Z-ers citing new or exacerbated mental health issues.
We turn to food for lots of reasons – and not all are related to hunger. We’re looking for more than satisfied physical appetites. Why do turn to food?
Food is comforting
Food is always there
Food provides an escape
Food occupies us
Food can make us feel better
But food turns on us. It gets out of control and makes us feel depressed, physically sick, more awful than before we turned there for comfort. In fact, the problem is often how we feel just after downing a pint of Ben and Jerry’s – ashamed, embarrassed, physically discomforted, anxious that we’ll gain weight, hopeless at the prospect of the world returning to normal, stressed about what it will be like if it ever does return to normal…and then it’s back to the fridge. It’s a common, but incredibly vicious, cycle. If we have no idea what will happen next in the world, why not turn to short-term comfort?
If this describes how you’re feeling, or how someone you love is feeling, let me just say – I’ve been there. My own recovery journey began at seventeen years old after battling binge eating and bulimia from childhood. Affected so deeply by the recovery process, she determined to devote the rest of her life to helping others out of the same insanity with food abuse and weight obsession.
For you, the cycle of overeating may have started when you were laid off from a job you worked hard to earn before the pandemic hit. Or maybe it began when online school for your kids threw an extra ball into your juggling act of work/life balance. Perhaps you were enjoying a new relationship before the pandemic, but now the isolation has left you feeling more alone than ever, and the frig was only steps away. I know how discouraging and hopeless and lonely it can feel. And I know how comforting food can feel in any of these stressful scenarios. But I know something else, too:
You’ll never find a long-term solution to emotional stress in a takeout container.
Only God can bring true healing to real life challenges.
God so cares about your stresses, your worries and anxieties. He understands exactly what it feels like to feel alone and smack dab in the middle of the unknown. There’s no shame in taking your emotions and struggles to your God. He wants to share the journey with you.
As we tentatively approach the world opening up again, a whole new host of emotions may rush in – stress about reintegrating our social lives, shame about changes our bodies may have undergone, fear about what the job marketplace will look like. Because our physical, spiritual, and emotional health are all connected, food issues often impact an individual’s entire life until they become ready to face their feelings. Whatever emotions you’re experiencing have merit – but you can choose a new way to cope with those feelings and finally experience true peace.
You don’t need some crazy diet to counteract whatever bad habits you may have picked up to help you get through this year.
You need a holistic, healthy, lifestyle solution.
Your specific solution depends on your specific situation, but there are lots of resources to choose from. A variety of support groups exist for all kinds of issues, such as grief or mental illness or food addiction, many of which have transitioned online over the last year. Similarly, a whole host of therapists are using telehealth to help clients through this time, with a variety of specialties.
As a psychologist and an addiction therapist, I’ve seen the 12-step model (developed by Bill Wilson and utilized in many support groups) help my clients find a way out of emotional eating. I even created a resource to help them process food issues alongside the 12 steps: The Satisfied Workbook. When you engage with a support group or personal counseling, you have a much better shot at identifying the spiritual/emotional issues that drive the unhealthy habits you’re engaging in.
Don’t stay in isolation spiritually and emotionally just because we have been isolating physically.
Take the first step… reach out for help!
I hope you will first reach out to God in prayer, sharing whatever painful or negative emotions you’re feeling. In a world that feels every-changing, the One who created you – body, mind and spirit – is faithful and true. Then reach out again – to a nutritionist, therapist, support group or other resource that can accompany you into a healthier way of living. You may have eaten your way through a pandemic, but a richer, more satisfying future awaits.
Rhona Epstein, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist with 30 years of clinical experience. She is the author of Food Triggers: End Your Cravings, Eat Well, and Live Better; Satisfied: A 90 Day Journey Toward Food Freedom, and her latest – The Satisfied Workbook. www.drrhona.com