stop stress eating

How To Stop Stress Eating On COVID-19 Lockdown

You’ve entered a pressure cooker. With COVID-19, everything about life at home is magnified — your good eating habits and your crappy ones.

  • You may see yourself using food as an escape, a reward, or a tool to help you cope with the stress of being stuck at home.
  • You may see old patterns of emotional eating or restricting resurfacing from the depths.
  • You may find yourself over-eating, under-eating, or just not knowing what to eat.

Your relationship with food will often mirror your relationship to life.

And let’s face it, life right now is strange and stressful. It’s natural, your eating will be too.

Stop punishing yourself for what you ate or didn’t eat yesterday. Let go of the expectations you had about food pre-COVID-19. Your body knows that something is different now.

  • Your nervous systems can feel the draining effects of social isolation.
  • Your nutritional needs may have changed as your activity level and routines have shifted.
  • Your sleeping and eating rhythms are no longer regulated by the same schedule.

You need to revisit how you are eating in this crisis and ask whether it’s actually serving you. If you want to stop stress eating at home and start finding peace and pleasure with food, here’s how to begin.

Identify Your Current Phase of Nourishment

eating dinner table nourishment
Photo by Stefan Vladimirov on Unsplash

Marc David, author and founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating describes eleven different phases of nourishment that people pass through in a lifetime. These phases represent distinct patterns of eating and thinking about food (e.g. cleansing, celebrating, healing) that serve different purposes for different occasions.

Sometimes, you intentionally choose to adopt a new phase. Other times, life chooses for you.

For many right now, the global pandemic and subsequent lockdown have made the choice for them. People have been thrust into the following three ways of eating, whether they like it or not:

  • “The Emotional Phase,”
  • “The Fanatic Phase,”
  • “The Anything Goes Phase.”

When these phases become extreme or stagnant, they can lead to lots of unwanted eating habits. Here’s what you should look for:

The Emotional Phase

The Emotional Phase is characterized by a non-rational approach to food. Balanced meals and macros aren’t particularly important. What is important is quelling your anxiety. Your eating follows the roller coaster of emotions, exacerbated by COVID news and domestic stressors. You may find yourself “eating your feelings” and approaching food to fill some emotional hunger or yearning that you can no longer access on lockdown.

The Fanatic Phase

The fanatic phase is often the counterpart to the emotional phase. It is characterized by rigid food rules and strict ways of eating. Given the loss of control due to COVID-19, you may notice yourself doubling-down on controlling your food. Fears of eating the “wrong foods,” gaining weight, or losing muscle can make your eating more regimented or fundamentalist. If it’s not perfectly paleo/vegan/keto/etc., you want none of it.

The Anything Goes Phase

The Anything Goes Phase is a response to life being turned upside down by COVID-19. All your food routines—the helpful and the limiting—are out the window. You may find yourself eating at weird times or skipping meals because your schedule no longer exists. You may be forced to eat new things because of limited availability. You may feel out of control or lost when it comes to deciding what and how to eat.

To Stop Stress Eating You Must Accept & Let Go Of Old Phases

eating patterns
Photo by Raspopova Marina on Unsplash

These patterns of eating can last for days, weeks, or even years. They often stay until you’ve learned their lessons and healed the stressors that drove you there initially.

You may hold onto to one way of eating because it helped you get through tough times in the past. Being fanatical about food may have given you the structure that you desperately needed when life was crazy. Eating emotionally may have been a necessary phase to help you let go of your controlling approach to life and learn to relax.

As you can see, every phase has it purpose. But as you grow and your circumstances change, you may stay attached to one phase of nourishment–even if it’s no longer nourishing you.

Here is your choice:

  • You can either sit around and wait for your circumstances to push you into a new phase.
  • Or you can become larger than your circumstances and intentionally shift to a more helpful way of eating.

First identify where you’re at, accepting that this phase served a purpose to help you cope. Then ask whether you’re overdue for moving on?

If you feel the answer is, “Yes, I’m ready,” it’s time to do the work of shifting to a new phase of nourishment: The Casa Phase.

To Stop Stress Eating Shift To The CASA Phase Of Nourishment

When you can truly accept your current phase of nourishment and embrace all of its unwanted habits, you open a window to the “Casa Phase.”

Casa” is the Spanish word for house, which seems appropriate for the challenge and opportunity of being stuck at home.

The “Casa Phase” is a way of eating that places the uncertainty of these times at the forefront of your eating and brings awareness to personal and collective stressors that throw you off.

CASA is an acronym for “Comfort,” “Adventure,” “Surrender,” and “Awareness, ” the four elements necessary to stop stress eating and shift to a more supportive approach to food.

Comfort

  • Eating for comfort is a part of being human. There’s nothing wrong with seeking comfort in food. It only becomes problematic when you stay stuck there, eating in excess, or avoiding the reality of discomfort.
  • It may feel selfish to eat good food and truly enjoy yourself when there’s so much suffering due to COVID-19. Release your guilt. You’re allowed to be happy and enjoy yourself. Food should be a source of contentment, even on lockdown. In fact, mealtimes may be one of the few things left that allow you to connect and relax.
  • If you’re feeling guilty about the privilege of eating well in lockdown, use that good conscience to take socially responsible action. Do what you can to share resources with those who really need it. Everyone deserves to eat quality food.

Adventure

  • Adventure, novelty, and variety are core human needs. Without some adventure, life becomes dull and your eating will too.
  • The challenge is that traditional ways of experiencing adventure—dining out, traveling, etc. — are gone, so you must find new ways to spice up your life and your eating.
  • Esther Perel, in her astute wisdom, says, “If you can’t have an adventure outwardly, then you have a unique opportunity to have an adventure inwardly and learn something new about yourself.
  • Learn to be creative at home and make eating an experience, not a chore. Whether it’s ordering out or trying a new recipe, you need to make it fun and novel. Eat with different silverware, in different bowls, with different music, or different positions on the floor or couch.

Surrender

  • We’re all dealing with a sustained level of uncertainty about the future in a way that has never been true in our lifetimes. We simply don’t know what is going to happen next.
  • This phase of nourishment is asking you to surrender to the uncertainty, even if you don’t like it or wish it otherwise. Fighting it only makes it worse.
  • The lesson at hand is learning to let go of what was and trust yourself: your hunger, your cravings, your pleasure, and your fullness—Build your faith in the wisdom of your body to show up for you in this moment.  
  • When you can accept the uncertainty outside, you lessen the need to reach for food as a source of certainty inside.

Awareness

  • Bring awareness to how your body feels when you eat.
    • What are you truly hungry for?
    • Are you tense or anxious?
    • Are there certain times of day that are harder for you?
    • Are there certain foods that are triggering?
    • Do you know yourself well enough to predict when you’ll stress eat?
  • Remember that stress is just an overwhelming amount of emotion (energy-in-motion) in your body. The energy arises, moves through you, and will pass, often in a matter of minutes.
  • With awareness, you can learn how to ride the wave of a strong emotion and then let it go, releasing the compulsion to eat with it, and returning your awareness back to what is most meaningful.

How To Stop Stress Eating Is Ultimately A Journey Back Home

welcome home
Photo by Arno Smit on Unsplash

Transitioning into a “Casa Phase” of nourishment begins with permission.

Give yourself permission to feel what is true for you right now. Your emotions are high, and your old ways of doing things are gone. Breathe and let that truth settle in before doing anything else.

From here, you need to be willing to experiment in little ways with eating differently. This requires curiosity and playfulness.

  • If you notice yourself reaching for food because of anxiety about the future, invite in a little surrender.
  • If you notice yourself eating out of boredom, invite in a little adventure to keep you from slipping onto autopilot.
  • If you notice that you’re snacking without being satiated, invite in a little comfort and make complete meals that actually give you pleasure and satisfaction.

Experiencing both comfort and adventure are part of your eating birthright. With the right mixture of surrender and awareness, you can really start nourishing your mind and body without stress eating.

To stop stress eating on lockdown, don’t lock-down your eating. Accept and embrace this challenging terrain, and then shift to a ‘Casa Phase’ that better matches what life is demanding of us.

Since there is no option but to stay at home, this is your chance to turn your home into your “casa” and redefine how you eat. The door is open if you’re ready.

Cooped up at home with love,

~ Jeff Siegel

I’m Jeff Siegel, a health coach and dynamic eating psychologist, helping people upgrade their habits and improve their health.

If you’re tired of dieting and being unhappy with your body, download my free eBook, “The 9 Weight Loss Mistakes And the Radical Ways To Overcome them.”

If you’d like to explore health coaching together, you can schedule a private 20-min consultation call with me

Jeff Siegel
Jeff Siegel
Jeff Siegel, M.Ed, is a personal trainer, health, and wellness life coach, Harvard University mindfulness instructor, and professional speaker.

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