Stress eating: How to manage stress eating and drinking during lockdown

The largest known study of stress levels in the UK was conducted by YouGov in 2018 and found at least 74 percent of Brits felt so stressed that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. This caused 46 percent of them to eat too much or make unhealthy food choices, and 29 percent to start drinking or increased their drinking. At the moment, it’s likely these numbers are increasing. Being trapped indoors while there’s a deadly virus sweeping the nation is stress-inducing. It is easy to fall into bad habits at times like these, and this behaviour often makes you feel worse. Express.co.uk spoke to Dr. Andreas Michaelides, Chief of Psychology at Noom on how to combat this.

Why am I stress eating?

Dr Michaelides said: “Everyone is feeling the impact of the coronavirus pandemic now.

“Understandably, the uncertainty of this time is causing a lot of stress, and for many, food can act as a coping mechanism.

“It is, however, possible to reframe these emotions and develop a healthier relationship with food and drink.”

Dr Michaelides works for Noom, a behaviour change experts and mobile health technology company.

He recommends using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to manage stress-eating and drinking during the current coronavirus outbreak.

Read on to find out his top tips in beating the habit.

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Recognising triggers

When reassessing your relationship with food and drink it’s important to recognise and understand your triggers.

Dr Michaelides said: “It’s quite normal for us to turn to food during periods of heightened stress, anxiety or sadness to help us cope with these emotions.

“Over time, this can easily evolve into an unhealthy habit and relationship with food.

“Before we can manage stress eating, we first must understand the cause of our stress.

“By identifying the reason behind these behaviours or compulsions – for example, heightened stress – we can then explore healthier ways of coping with those stressors.

“Pinpointing the external stressors and our behavioural responses allows us to reframe that reaction, helping us establish healthier habits and coping mechanisms.”

Understanding your relationship with alcohol

It’s also very common to use alcohol as a way of coping when times get tough.

Dr Michaelides said: “For many, holidays like Easter are additional triggers, as they’re often associated with a long weekend spent enjoying time with family, often with a glass of wine or a gin and tonic.

“Much like food, drinking too much alcohol can quickly form an unhealthy habit.

“Often people drink in excess to feel the physiological effect: being drunk.

“Over time, this can be very harmful and lead to a range of health issues.”

You don’t need to give up alcohol completely, said Dr Michaelides, but “you need to understand the rationale behind over-drinking in order to manage and enjoy it in moderation.”

“By doing so, you can develop a healthier relationship with alcohol and use it less often to cope with stress and anxiety.

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Managing cravings

Before you reach for that chocolate bar, you need to figure out where the craving is coming from.

Dr Michaelides said: “Is it emotional, nostalgic, psychological (triggered by a memory or routine) or a result of true physical hunger?

“Once you’ve begun to understand your cravings and their triggers, it is easier to recognise them in the moment.”

No food has to be off-limits, but you should enjoy what you want in moderation.

You can still enjoy a sweet treat by having a smaller piece.

Choosing a smaller plate when having a meal should help you take a more reasonable portion.

Understand how behaviours are influenced

CBT is fundamentally quite simple and can easily be used to make positive long-term lifestyle changes.

It’s based on the idea that our thoughts and attitudes influence our emotions and behaviours, and vice versa.

We are able to break negative behaviour chains.

Recognise common downbeat thoughts and replace them with new ideas

For example, Dr Michaelides recommends swapping “I can’t socialise anymore, and that makes me feel alone” for “I can’t socialise the way I’m used to right now, but I can do it virtually”.

This process can be challenging and uncomfortable, but it is an important part of breaking an unhealthy cycle, he said.

Acknowledge there will be ups and downs

There will be downs and days you feel like giving up, but it’s important to not dwell on these emotions.

Dr Michaelides said: “When there are ups, applaud your effort.

“Effort is the result of commitment, and you are choosing to stay committed to your goal.

“Praising your own efforts will affirm the progress you have made towards your big picture goal.

“This also helps you recognise the shift from a negative thought cycle often associated with making lifestyle change to a positive, rewarding one.”

Prioritise your mental health

Physical exercise is important, but it is essential to look after your mental health.

Dr Michaelides said: “Social distancing, among other changes we are facing today, presents a new set of challenges that can stack additional stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness onto anyone’s plate.

“Self-care and awareness of your mental health status are important now more than ever.

“Stay connected with your virtual support system and be open to sharing your day-to-day thoughts and experiences. “While it may take some creativity, find ways to cope with your new reality and recognise that it is ultimately temporary.”

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