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Managing Stress, Distress and Emotional Eating During Times of Uncertainty

Woman writing in food journal surrounded by vegetables

Diane Dallal, M.S., a clinical psychology doctoral student and extern on the Penn Bariatrics team, shares tips for gaining control of emotional eating during times of uncertainty.

In times of uncertainty, such as during the current COVID-19 pandemic, our bodies and minds can experience physical and emotional unrest. This can manifest as physiological stress (like muscle tension, clenched fists, and difficulty sleeping) and emotional distress (like fear, sadness, boredom, and frustration) that can be difficult to manage at times.

Moreover, staying at home with regular access to our kitchen pantries, while experiencing this unrest, can lead to frequent emotional eating.

Although stress and distress are normal reactions in times like these, it is important to break the links between them and subsequent emotional eating in order to experience long-term success with weight control. Here are some evidence-based strategies to reduce your stress, manage distress and decrease emotional eating.

Reduce Your Stress

Use diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing from your belly, to lower your heart rate, relieve tension and regulate your physiological stress cues. Mindfulness meditation apps like Calm are excellent resources for guided deep breathing exercises. You can also find instructions for how to practice deep breathing from Penn Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine.

Pair your deep breathing with progressive muscle relaxation by tensing up and then relaxing your muscles in time with your breath. Paired breathing and progressive muscle relaxation helps to further regulate your physical sensations of stress. Find a guided progressive muscle relaxation video, here.

Manage Your Distress

Managing distress starts with seeing your thoughts and feelings for what they are: momentary activity in your brain. 

You might think things like, “This quarantine may go on forever,” or, “I won’t be able to get through this without overeating.” Feelings of anxiety, frustration, and boredom might come up as well. However, these thoughts and feelings are temporary, and you do not have to choose behaviors (like eating) based on momentary states.

Instead, choose a behavior despite what thoughts you might have about that behavior or how it might make you feel. Gain distance from your thoughts and feelings, and recognize when your thoughts and feelings are driving you to make certain eating decisions in order to make more mindful and conscious choices.

Gain Control of Emotional Eating

First, track how often you are eating in response to emotions when you are not truly hungry.

Then, reflect on the emotions that led you to eat. Many of us eat in response to negative emotions, positive emotions, or a combination of the two. Ask yourself what specific emotions influenced your eating habits.

Next, take a stance of curiosity rather than judgment toward your behaviors, and ask yourself why you might be eating in response to emotions. Negative emotions may cause discomfort, while positive emotions may cause excitement, leading you to more easily justify why you deserve to soothe or reward yourself with food.

Finally, try to identify the thoughts behind your emotions. What is causing your intense emotional state? One of the best ways to reduce emotional eating is to understand the thoughts that trigger your emotions, and then work to change those thoughts.

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Learn about bariatric surgery and get the support you need to continue on your weight-loss journey. We offer workouts, recipes and tips from Bariatric Surgery program team members, and stories from patients like you.

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