How to Manage Stress Eating — or Not Eating at All — in Uncertain Times
Daily insights on life in the face of uncertainty, by psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer
This story is part of How to Eat in the New Normal, a weeklong series about how the Covid-19 pandemic is changing the way we eat, with expert advice for making food choices that help you stay healthy and happy.
Emotions are running high these days, and that can lead to all sorts of negative habits, especially around food. Are you eating more than usual? Or maybe you’re so worried that you’re forgetting to eat? Stress impacts our appetite in major ways, but there is a simple approach you can adopt to identify and change these behaviors so you can stay healthy and feel less anxious while living through these uncertain times.
When it comes to food, anxiety can impact many of us in one of two ways: We don’t eat or we eat too much. Not eating often falls into two categories: not eating because we’ve lost our appetite due to stress and worry, or simply forgetting to eat because we’re too busy juggling everything else.
Losing our appetite is actually an adaptive survival mechanism. Our ancient ancestors who were out on the savannah in the midst of danger had to be ready to fight or run at a moment’s notice. When our fight-or-flight mode is engaged, it signals to our bodies that this is no time to sit down and have a nice meal, and diverts blood from our digestive tract into our muscles. With that redistribution of blood, we’re equipped to do what we need to survive, so that we’re alive in the future to have another meal.
Forgetting to eat can also be the result of our stress response. We’re so focused on what we’re doing or stressed about what we have to do, that we forget to eat or don’t give ourselves a break to get some food. When we’re stressed, our thinking brain isn’t working well, and we don’t see that taking five minutes to eat something is actually going to help us function now, and keep our energy levels stable later.
When we see really clearly that a behavior isn’t rewarding, we become disenchanted…