Why Do We Stress Eat in a Crisis?

Paracelsus Recovery
8 min readNov 26, 2020

During lockdown, many of us were at home, anxious about the future, bored, and next to well-stocked pantries, leading to a lot of stress eating. With a lonely festive season ahead of us, are people falling back into unhealthy eating habits?

When we entered that first lockdown, many of us found comfort in the thought, ‘we’ll get through these months, and then the end of the year will be all that much better.’ This helped frame our perspective and keep our spirits high. However, the more our understanding of the virus evolved, the more our plans for the future were shaken into oblivion with an etch-a-sketch style speed.

Major life events, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, increase our stress levels. Emotional eating is an unhelpful way of coping with this stress.

Now, we are facing the loss of both a normal festive period and an end date for the pandemic. Both of these realities are disheartening, and they will increase our already-too-high stress levels. As a result, many of us are lonely, exhausted and stuck at home.

Unfortunately, circumstances like these create the perfect storm for people to adopt unhelpful coping mechanisms — such as emotional eating. While comfort eating is harmless in moderation, when combined with chronic stress, it can lead to a complex and hard-to-break addictive cycle.

What is Stress Eating?

Stress eating, or emotional eating, occurs when we consume large quantities of food in response to feelings instead of hunger. It is a common self-soothing technique and is as normal as having a glass of wine in the evening to wind down. However, because our stress-levels usually ebb and flow, so too does our need to self-soothe. We can engage in comfort eating from time to time without any long-term side effects. But the Covid-19 crisis has brought the world persistent stress with little to no routine. Because of these variables, self-isolation turned moderate snacking into problematic stress-eating for many people.

When this happens, food becomes a kind of substance that our brains use to distract ourselves from stress or anxiety. Over time, it can lead to difficult-to-break habits and physical health issues. An expert at Paracelsus Recovery explained that “stress eating, at the core, is when we eat to fill an emptiness, or emotional void, within ourselves. It’s like any addictive behavior — it momentarily distracts you from negative emotions. But, it does not help you deal with those feelings.”

When we try to numb our feelings rather than address them, we only accumulate more stress. In doing so, a vicious cycle can arise because once we are dependent on something external to regulate our emotions, we weaken our brain’s ability to calm itself down.

In essence, the more we depend on food to feel better, the worse we feel about ourselves; the worse we feel, the more stressed we become, which leads us to eat. This cycle can lead to a whole host of other mental health issues such as binge-eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, depression, anxiety, alcohol, or other narcotic/pharmaceutical dependencies.

Physiological Triggers of Stress-Eating

Stress and anxiety make us crave comfort foods. Stress pumps out hormones such as cortisol, which activates our fight-or-flight mode. When this happens, our bodies need more energy to maintain such a vigilant and high-alert state. Further, if our brains believe there is an immediate danger, we will seek out food that provides instant energy. Hence, stress-induced hunger increases our appetite for carbohydrates and sugars.

More still, prolonged stress is emotionally taxing. It can make us irritable, exhausted, and unfocused. When we feel like this, we can start to crave dopamine — the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. Sugary foods provide us with bursts of dopamine. Or, in other words, a fleeting feeling of happiness. They offer a form of escapism from the uncertainty and discomfort. However, this process is akin to an addictive cycle and, as such, lays the groundwork for one to evolve.

Psychological Reasons For Comfort Eating

Food is a highly emotional substance in our lives from the get-go. As new-borns, it is in our feeding relationship with our mother that we feel connected and protected. Think of how a baby cries when he is hungry and unable to help himself. When his mother provides food, it provides both nourishment and safety.

Our inability to do anything in response to the Covid-19 crisis, except stay home and wash our hands, may connect us with that original helplessness. Also, many of us are alone at a time of year when normally we would have jam-packed social schedules. This could make us feel as though we lack control over our lives, similarly to how children do not have control over their movements or decisions. As a result, it could also make us feel powerless and frustrated.

In response to these difficult emotions, subconsciously, when we ‘eat our feelings,’ our brains could be seeking food as a form of self-soothing we once knew.

How to Stop Stress Eating?

If you are worried that you are using food to cope with your feelings, try to look out for these cues:

The urge to eat is forceful and comes on immediately. If you feel almost ‘blinded’ by the desire to eat, it is likely to be stress-induced. Physical hunger will usually be a much more gradual sensation.

You never feel full or satisfied after a meal. When we eat to fill an emotional void rather than our hunger, we will never feel psychologically ‘full’ even though we may feel physically sick.

You feel very guilty when eating. If you find yourself spending a lot of time thinking about food, weight gain, or find yourself wanting to eat in secret, you may be projecting negative feelings into food.

Irrational fears about running out of food. A classic example is pre-emptively preparing for, or panicking about, not feeling full after a meal.

If you spot these triggers, try to employ the following five tips.

1. Look After Your Sleep Hygiene.

Ensuring we obtain adequate sleep is essential if we want to decrease our stress levels and stop stress eating. When the body is sleep-deprived, our hunger-causing hormones, such as ghrelin, increase because our body needs increased energy to function. Further, we all know the emotional vulnerability that can arise when our minds are exhausted. However, when we’ve had a good night’s sleep, we feel naturally more balanced, optimistic, and confident. Exercise, meditation, and minimising your consumption of stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine, will all help to improve sleep.

The hormones that regulate our sleep also regulate our hunger, which means we are much more likely to overeat when we are tired.

2. Practice Mindful Eating.

Mindful eating evolved out of mindfulness practices. Mindfulness centres around focusing on the present moment and has been shown to decrease stress levels. To practice mindful eating, try to eat slowly and focus on your experience of the food. Observe how it tastes, what nourishment feels like, and try to tune into your body’s response. In doing so, mindful eating can teach us how to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger.

To regain control over your eating habits, experts at Paracelsus Recovery recommend understanding your triggers and finding healthier ways to deal with stress.

3. Focus on Stress-Management.

If we want to get our stress-eating under control, we need to find healthier ways of dealing with stress. To do so, try to identify your triggers and come up with some alternative coping mechanisms for each one. For example, if you notice that the urge to over-indulge kicks in when you feel lonely, make a plan to call a friend the next time that feeling hits. If you start thinking about food when you feel bored, try to go for a walk instead.

4. Practice Self-Compassion.

When we engage in emotional eating, we are seeking comfort from very difficult emotional states. Try to recognise that you are in pain and wanting relief from that pain is a normal human reaction. Respond to that need for comfort with as much love and compassion as you can muster. For example, ask yourself, ‘what’s going on with me today? What feelings or experiences am I really struggling with right now?’ If your inner critic is being extra-harsh and punishing, ask yourself ‘would I talk to my sibling, best friend, or a child like this? What would I say instead?’

5. Create a Routine

Without a routine, it can be difficult for our bodies to know when to respond to our environment. Lockdowns, remote work, and festive holidays all disrupt our routine, and our diet, sleep, and energy levels often take a hit. As such, try to set specific (but flexible) mealtimes. When we eat at regular times each day, our bodies adapt to this schedule. Thus, if you are hungry outside of these hours, it becomes much easier to recognise if it is induced by emotions or hunger. If we can recognize that it is our emotions, we can respond differently. For instance, by journaling or exercise, and regain control over our dietary habits.

Above all else, try to be compassionate with yourself. You are not the only person who struggled to keep their eating habits under control in lockdown.

Paracelsus Recovery

Paracelsus Recovery is the most exclusive and discrete treatment centre in the world. We only have one client at a time, and work exclusively with ultra-high-net-worth clients. We have an extensive background in treating numerous eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, compulsive overeating disorder, and orthorexia. Our highly trained team of specialists understand that an eating disorder is not about food. Instead, food becomes a way to cope with difficult emotions and traumatic experiences. For thousands of people, the Covid-19 pandemic will be a traumatic event.

We only ever have one client at a time to ensure maximum care and confidentiality. Thus, you can stay with us and only interact with our team. In other words, we can ensure social-distancing and self-isolation measures. As a treatment centre concerned with health and well-being, we will take all the essential precautions to protect our staff and clientele.

To know more, please follow us on Twitter or contact us directly to info@paracelsus-recovery.com

Paracelsus Recovery

Utoquai 43 | 8008 Zurich | Switzerland


T. +41 52 222 88 00



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