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Overeating During Stressful times - Mindfoodness

Overeating During Stressful Times – Psychology and Neuroscience Explains

women eating a chocolate donut - how to stop binge eating and overeating

Binge eating and overeating during stressful times

These are tricky and challenging times. I don’t know about you, but getting out of the lockdown feels surreal and strange at the same time. I have very mixed emotions.  Some of us can’t wait to get out, go shopping and be able to visit their favourite cafes again. Others, experience grief to “need” to go out again, not being able to spend as much time with their family.  I created a poll on Instagram, asking if people were eating more during this period.  An overwhelming 93% said YES!  So here is a timely blog to talk about what might be triggering your binge eating and overeating. Or, what to do if you find yourself eating a bit more than normal, or feeling out of control with food.

 

TRIGGER 1} Survival brain

I love the neuroscience underpinning overeating and binge eating because it empowers us to reprogram our brain to regain control over food.  Our brain is made up of different parts.  The back part is our survival brain.  This is our ‘old brain’, that makes decisions to survive and keep us alive. All animals have this.  But what differentiates humans is our frontal lobe.  With this, we are able to make conscious and rational decisions. It controls emotional expression, judgment, and problem-solving. 

image of a brain. This image reflects the importance of understanding the brain when it comes to binge eating or overeating

Binge eating and overeating

In stressful or uncertain situations, the brain believes you are in danger. It is designed to keep you alive and therefore it releases stress hormones dopamine and cortisol. At the same time it shuts down the rational decision making process so that you can react fast. In the real world, if there is a tiger behind you, your brain is designed to make you run fast and respond to your instincts to survive.

 

When people describe their binge eating episodes, they often describe “not having any control”. It’s like something takes over them. And it’s true. It’s their hormones and basic survival instincts that take over.  The survival brain is signaling us that we ‘need’ to eat this to survive and stay alive.  And the more we act on that trigger from our brain, the more we wire our brain in this way.

 

Re-program

In order to ‘re-program’ our brain, we need to differentiate the trigger from ourselves.  Become conscious and recognize ‘That is the trigger, that is not me’.  Ultimately, it is merely the primal brain in action.  But you know what is better and for your highest good.  Bring yourself back to this consciousness.  Obviously,  this will not always be easy because the primal part of our brain is very powerful.  It is about practice, repetition, and consistency. (I expand more on this in my blog about habits ‘Break Automatic Habits Based On Neuroscience – Master Healthy Habits‘)

Image of a women mediating to demonstrate the importance of acknowledging the triggers to binge eating and overeating not being a 'part' of us. "That is the Trigger, That is not me"

Awareness and change the focus

We become what we think and our thoughts become our reality, therefore, to rewire our brain, we need to break our habitual thoughts. When we become aware of our thoughts, we can change the way we think, then we can change what we do (behavior).  This is the loop process that changes our brain.  Ultimately, we want to create new pathways in the brain to change our habits around food long-term.

 

TRIGGER 2}  Restrictions cause binge eating and overeating

Restrictions play a massive role in binge eating and overeating.   Are you intentionally dieting to fulfill weight-loss goals?  Literature and research shows us that restrictions and negative body image are the two main reasons for binge eating and overeating.  Even if you don’t consciously diet, but don’t allow yourself to eat food you would usually enjoy, gives you a sense of restrictions. Further, during the lockdown, being ‘physically locked down’ to our homes was also causing many  to feel restricted in our ability to access supermarkets and food.  We couldn’t go to the supermarkets or the dairy on the corner, and that felt like there is not enough variety of food, which also feels restricted.

 

Dieter mindset

You might not be explicitly dieting but have a ‘dieter mindset’.  This mindset would include internal dialogue such as ‘I really need to start eating well.  I am really not eating in a way that I need to eat. Once the lockdown is over, I will eat better and exercise more.  Once I am out of this lockdown then I will stop eating all this food’.  This dieter mindset activates the survival part of our brain, causing anticipated scarcity, which can drive binge eating and overeating. 

Image of fork and knife with a measuring tape and quote about diet mindset being important to stop binge eating and overeating

TRIGGER 3}  Emotions

In stressful situations, we are all experiencing different emotions: loneliness, anxiety, uncertainty about money, relationship stress, weight and body image concerns, etc. During these times, many are using food to numb and soothe these emotions.  Ultimately, we find comfort and distraction by binge eating and overeating.

 

So what can I do?

Become aware of your thoughts:

First, we need to get out of the fight and flight mode.  Reinforce to yourself that you are safe.  Remind yourself that you will be fine.  Human beings have experienced wars and illnesses and come out on the other side.  Human beings are strong, resistant, and adaptable.  Notice your thoughts. Ask yourself: is it the ultimate truth? What is the evidence?

 

Calm the nervous system down:

Deep belly breathing. On the count of 4 breathe in and on the count of 6 breathe out. Repeat 10 times. Join restorative yoga classes that will help you to become more mindful and feel more calm and relaxed.

 

Acknowledge and validate your feelings:

Take your time to fully feel your emotions. Even label them, what do they feel like, where in your body can you feel them? Stay with them for a little while. You will notice, when we create space for our feelings, they loose their power. It allows us to calm and make more rational decisions.

bowl of healthy food, demonstrating the importance of eating enough calories to stop binge eating and overeating

Look after your emotions.  Be aware of how you manage your emotions.  Soothe yourself without food. Talk to friends and family.  Go on walks.  Do restorative yoga (join BODY LOVE YOGA or I have FREE VIDEOS HERE).  Find positive ways to accept and manage emotions.  Human beings are innately emotional, and we need to feel safe to express and feel.

 

Binge eating and overeating

Binge eating and overeating are realities for many of us during stressful times. I have a Free Guide To Binge Eating and Overeating where I reveal the hidden triggers and reasons. You can download here or see below. 

binge eating and overeating guide

FREE GUIDE REVEALS

 

6 Hidden Reasons for Binge Eating and Overeating During Covid 19 Lockdown

 

?Uncover what is driving your overeating and food cravings

? Beat binge eating with immediately actionable tips

? Feel in control with stocked up food without giving up eating food you love

? Create an easy relationship with food

? Address the root causes

? Eat flexibly without restrictions

 

calm

Supporting Yourself Through Stressful Unprecedented Times

women looking out into the sea looking calm

Finding calm within stressful and uncertain times

In these unprecedented times, it is important to acknowledge that many of us are feeling distressed in one way or another. Most of us find themselves in a not calm state.  Whether through the loss of income, work, separation from loved ones or a decline in mental or physical health. Uncertainty is understandably high for many of us right now. 

 

I would like to discuss the psychology of uncertainty (particularly around food, but also other aspects of life) and give techniques to bring calm and and a sense of certainty.  I discussed these issues and techniques around eating and food in more detail in my interview Kiwi Talks #43.

 

Psychology of certainty 

This pandemic is riddled with unknowns.  So, to combat this, our minds tend to search for what will bring us certainty. For some, it is food because we know how food makes us feel.  For example, binge eating junk food. Chocolate will make me feel good and I get a temporary high.  Is it alcohol? If I have a glass of wine, I will feel relaxed and chilled and forget about things for a while.  Are you obsessing about cleaning? If I clean the house I will regain some control back.  It could also be pornography or online shopping addiction because this releases dopamine and even adrenaline. Have you ever felt excited when you started buying things and felt like buying more and more? That is a combination of adrenaline and dopamine that drives those urges.

 

In times of uncertainty, we tend to go back to what we know. Often these tend to be self-soothing activities that give us a sense of control. These behaviors become like self-medication. Ultimately, in uncertainty, we move towards things that we know because we know how it will make us feel – control, happiness, numbness, distraction, etc. 

calm image of a flower floating on water

It is important to cultivate awareness of what you are clutching onto to bring certainty because the behavior might not be serving your highest good.  But I know from working with clients in relation to their eating habits, that people actually know what to eat. They know exactly what healthy eating looks like.  So if people know this, what is the problem? The issue, therefore, becomes ‘Why don’t we do it?  What are the roadblocks?   Some of this stems from how our human psychology works, specifically in relation to survival instincts. 

 

Psychology of the survival instinct in stressful moments

The survival instinct has a vital function for us as human beings.  When we were threatened by the tiger or lion in the wild, we needed to run away immediately to stay alive.  We didn’t want our brain to think ‘Oh should I run left or right?’.  No, we needed to act now to stay alive!

 

Hormones

So when the cortisol and adrenaline hormones elevate, the rational part of the brain is meant to shut down.  This survival instinct is why many people are not thinking rationally right now. Many people are acting on autopilot or mimicking others (panic buying) in the name of survival.   It is hormones creating this, so we simply need to create awareness and use techniques to get out of flight and fight mode, bringing hormones down. 

women at her desk with her head in her hands looking stressed

Find calm with awareness of habits

Apart from this survival instinct on overdrive, you might be noticing past patterns or habits resurfacing.    Thus, it is an important time to become aware of habit formation and how to change habits (read my blog on this), and become aware of personal triggers.  Self-awareness might also be simple strategy. For instance, if you find watching the news is affecting you, limit this to watching just once per day. 

 

Techniques to bring calm and control when feeling overwhelmed

If we eat when we are not hungry, or drink alcohol to numb ourselves, we are ultimately looking to change how we feel.  It momentarily distracts us and numbs us from painful feelings. But there are other ways to change how we feel.  For example:

 

1)Movement (Singing, dancing, yoga, pilates, HIIT training). Movement powerfully and quickly shifts emotional states. 

 

2)Gratitude (If we think about what we are grateful for it changes how we feel). Studies show that brain and heart waves align and become congruent when we are grateful, creating calm. We can’t be grateful and angry at the same time.

 

3)Do something restorative (Yin yoga or deep belly breathing) In THIS Video I am showing three poses that will give you calm.

 

4) Talk to your inner child.  (We all have an inner child and need to check in with him/her.  Place your hand on your heart, and ask yourself how you are feeling. What is creating that emotion. Allow yourself to feel those emotions). 

 

5) The anchor of breath (Deep belly breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and send the signal to your brain that you are safe).

creating calm with dancing and movement can change emotional states. picture of mum and daughter dancing happily

Power of breath brings calm

When we are born, we naturally breathe deep into our belly.  This is our natural state of breathing. But as we grow up we tend to breathe through our chest.  This chest breathing signals to our brain fight or flight mode. It signals to our brain we don’t feel safe and kicks our nervous system into survival mode.  This mode makes us do irrational things like empty the shelves at the supermarket. This current crisis has many people in survival mode and they would be breathing shallow.  So if we take ourselves back to the breath, we can calm our nervous system down. It will signal to the brain that ‘I am ok,  I am safe’. You will consequently make different decisions and old habits won’t re-surface. 

 

Find calm 

These techniques of breath, gratitude, and movement are powerful techniques to achieve calm and control.  We start to think more rationally and take aligned actions around all aspects of life. Let your breath be your anchor in these uncertain times, as it is always available.  Forgive yourself, be gentle with yourself and allow these times to be an opportunity for radical shifts. Much love, Eugenia @ Mindfoodness. 

binge eating and overeating guide

FREE GUIDE REVEALS

 

6 Hidden Reasons for Binge Eating and Overeating During Covid 19 Lockdown

 

?Uncover what is driving your overeating and food cravings

? Beat binge eating with immediately actionable tips

? Feel in control with stocked up food without giving up eating food you love

? Create an easy relationship with food

? Address the root causes

? Eat flexibly without restrictions

 

lockdown

COVID-19 Edition: Overeating During Lockdown? – Stress, Boredom or Childhood experience can lead to binge eating.

Lockdown binge

Are you finding yourself binge eating on snacks or overeating on stockpiled food during lockdown? Most of us probably have more food at home than usual, whilst spending more time at home.  Throw in the intense uncertainty of the Covid-19 situation with the possible resurfacing of our personal challenges with food, and we have a potentially challenging situation. Given that there are many reasons binging or overeating might be occurring,  how on earth do we navigate it? And most importantly, what can you do?

VIDEO

2: 49mins – Psychology of overeating and binge eating

4:08 mins – Perceived food scarcity 

7:40 mins – Stress related eating

9:20 mins – Boredom 

10:40 mins – Creating habits

13:00 mins – Practical suggestions

16:30 mins – Managing stress + golden tip

Why you might be overeating and binge eating during the COVID-19 lockdown

1)Human psychology 

Essentially, the way human psychology operates is we want what we can’t have.  The forbidden fruit metaphor is well-known to most of us. If you do not allow yourself to eat certain foods, they automatically become more appealing.   If we are constantly seeing food we never allow ourselves to eat in the pantry or fridge, it will be hard to resist. Some people might even give themselves permission to indulge,  ‘I don’t care, I am in lockdown for 4 weeks anyway.  I can go back to clean eating once this is all over’.  If you have a strong diet mentality this might be you too?  I will now explore some reasons why binge eating and overeating might be occurring.  Because if we uncover these, we can actually take control back of our eating

2)Anticipated food scarcity 

Anticipated food scarcity can be one reason we binge.  Now, obviously food is not scarce (for most people reading this blog at least). I am living in New Zealand and food is readily available. However, some might perceive or feel a sense of scarcity if we ever felt this in our childhood experience.  

 

For example, we might have grown up in a country that did in fact lack food.  Or, perhaps our parents did not allow us to eat certain foods, or lacked finances to eat certain foods.  Also, if a parent had issues around their body and weight, these issues of fear can be easily projected onto the child unknowingly through control and the restriction of food. These childhood subconscious patterns might generate an ‘anticipated scarcity’ in the current lockdown.   Consequently, you might feel like panic buying or binge eating everything in your pantry.

anticipated scarcity in the current lock down can stem from our childhood experieces

3)Stress

Many of us use food as a coping mechanism.  It is a soothing and temporal distraction that makes us feel good for a moment.  If we are feeling stressed, food can distract us from our thoughts and worry. I call it self-medication with food. And it is something we learn because we have done it in the past and we know it works to make us feel good. How do you feel when you eat chocolate? Many clients say it relaxes them and they feel good.  So their brain remembers this feel-good sensation. So, when stress creeps in, they will open up bars of chocolate to soothe the pain. Now, this ‘self-medication’ could be sex, pornography, shopping, alcohol or drugs, or any combination of these.   (Check out my interview with Kiwi Talkz #43 @ 14:30mins where I talk about how chocolate activates the reward system in our brain)

 

4)Boredom

Boredom is an interesting reason we might binge or overeat.  Again, like responding to stress this is a learned behaviour. If I am bored, and feel this sensation in my body, I will find something that will ‘fix’ that for a moment.  It not only gives us something to ‘do’ but highly palatable food releases dopamine, the feel good hormone. This process creates a habit and whenever we feel bored we will automatically reach for the pack of chips or chocolate biscuits.  So, understanding habit formation is critical in developing awareness in shifting the pattern.

 

Understanding habit formation

There are 3 components of a habit.  There is a trigger, behaviour and reward.  Triggers can be emotions, stress, situations, or even food.  Behaviours are the actions we take (such as eating) in order to feel good. This ‘feel good’ sensation is the reward.  Now, we always only do something if it meets our needs. So the question is, what is my need? If I eat because I am bored, that meets my need to overcome the boredom.  I want to be entertained and have fun, to do something I enjoy. The critical question here is, how can I meet that need in another way

 

Example of changing a habit

How do we change a habit? First, we go back to the trigger (boredom was the trigger).  Then, we either avoid or eliminate the trigger. For example if we become bored watching TV at night causing us to binge, we begin to plan things we enjoy doing (calling a friend, playing with your children, talk with your partner, doing an online class, or listening to a podcast).  We can also change our behaviour.  If we are feeling bored, your behaviour might be sitting and allowing the sensation of boredom.  Tell yourself gently, ‘I am bored, I am just going to sit with this feeling.  It is ok to feel this, I do not need to change how I feel all the time.’

lady holding donuts with the text "what is your need" during this COVID-19 lockdown

Practical suggestions for the time in lockdown

It is not only critical we hold awareness about what is happening (and consciously shift habits that do not serve us), but have practical ways to overcome what we no longer want in our life. Here are some practical tools you can apply at home.

 

Out of sight

If you have a stock-pile of food at home, place it at a physical distance.  Excess food in the pantry becomes a sensory and visual trigger.  Simply , ‘I see food, I become hungry for it’.  So place it in the shed, garage or high up in your cupboards.  Out of sight, out of mind. 

 

Other practical tools for this lockdown

This is a high-stress time for many.   My suggestion is you look for other ways to soothe yourself to manage the stress, whilst elevating your mood. For example:

 

  • walking (get outside and physically move whilst getting healing vitamin D)
  • morning routine (5 minute morning gratitude meditation / restorative yoga (I offer online classes at Body Love Yoga Classes)
  • journal (write out your feelings in a stream-of-consciousness manner will help untangle stress and emotions)
  • talk to a friend or loved one (talk out your feelings)
  • stay connected to people outside of your bubble (via zoom or houseparty apps – harness the amazing technology we have)
  • plan activities at home so you have something to look forward to (this can be as simple as watching a movie)
  • have projects to focus on (but at the same time, don’t place unnecessary pressure)
women sitting on her bed meditating during lockdown

Golden tip

My clients who are doing well at this time are all doing one common thing.  They are keeping a routine. For example, they get up and go to bed at the same time. They eat meals and snacks at certain times of the day.  Also, they do not leave longer than 3-4 hours between meals. Keeping up an eating routine like this might help you too.  You could also try looking into mindfulness exercises around food or read my blog Mindfulness and Food Choices.

 

Compassion and kindness during this lockdown period

Finally, be compassionate with yourself and others.  This is an extreme situation that we have never dealt with before. So of course we will automatically revert to familiar coping mechanisms.  And, remember to set realistic goals, focusing on progress and not the destination. I talk about goal setting in Beauty Haven’s article that unpacks the diet culture in Australia and New Zealand – READ HERE

 

Free Guide

To find out more about binge eating, download the Free Guide 9 Hidden Reasons For Binge Eating And Over Eating During Covid-19 Lockdown 

binge eating and overeating guide

FREE GUIDE REVEALS

 

6 Hidden Reasons for Binge Eating and Overeating During Covid 19 Lockdown

 

? Uncover what is driving your overeating and food cravings

? Beat binge eating with immediately actionable tips

? Feel in control with stocked up food without giving up eating food you love

? Create an easy relationship with food

? Address the root causes

? Eat flexibly without restrictions