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How to manage stress eating or not eating

Posted by Jen A. Miller on April 1, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is unlike anything most of us have ever experienced.

One of the many things changing: How we eat. A lot of us are either eating more than we usually do, or not at all.

“With most people, the first thing to go when we’re stressed is self-care,” said Jennifer Wegmann, lecturer in health and wellness studies at Binghamton University, and author of the audio series “Resilience: The New Science of Mastering Stress and Living Well.” 

W hen Wegmann says self-care, she doesn’t mean things like massages and manicures, but the true basics: exercise, sleep and eating. “We let go of those things first because we think we need to be better for other people.”

Those affected by anxiety are the most likely to stop eating, said Debra Kissen, chief executive of Light on Anxiety CBT Treatment Center and member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. This goes back to our ancient ancestors. “When you’re about to be eaten by a lion, and you either need to fight or take flight, it’s not really efficient for your gut to be digesting food. It’s a waste of energy,” she said.

This kind of reaction makes sense for an immediate threat, though it isn’t the best way to handle food in the long term. It’s “a prehistoric way of surviving that for a modern life crisis can be ineffective,” she said.

On the other hand, overeating can be the result of a gamut of things, from depression to simply having stocked up on your favorite sweet before self-isolating. For those who are now working from home, having unlimited access to the kitchen might mean more grazing.

Your body’s physical stress response could be playing a role too, said Mackenzie Kelly, clinical psychologist at Rush University Medical Center. When stressed, our bodies release the stress hormone cortisol, and make more insulin, “which impacts the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats, and when that’s activated, it can impact food selection,” she said. 

The foods you are more likely to then crave are often carbohydrates or high in fat, which dampen the effects of increased cortisol and insulin, shutting off the stress response.
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