Anna Wootton

Lockdown lessons: What quarantining can teach us about emotional eating

Firstly: how are you doing?

I know the situation – and laws – in every country are different right now. Where I am in the Cayman Islands, I have been so impressed by the strength and leadership our government has shown, and the commitment they are repeatedly making to putting the health and lives of our people above economic priorities. It saddens me that not everyone is doing the same, and I hope and pray we all make it through this without too many losses as a result of poor decisions.

I hope that you are all staying safe and most importantly, staying home. But this, of course comes with its own challenges. We are in the middle of our sixth week of lockdown here, which means only essential services are allowed on the roads; depending on the first letter of our surnames we are allowed out for a trip to the pharmacy or supermarket for essentials on alternate days of the week. We can exercise or pick up takeout every day except Sunday – Sunday is a hard curfew day, when we cannot leave our property.

This quite a change from most people’s norm, and has reinforced a couple of lessons I try to impart through my coaching, when people struggle with emotional eating and control around food.

  1. Framing matters. How you choose to look at a situation can mean everything to your mental health.

    I can choose to see the current shelter-in-place regulations as restrictive and the police and government as controlling. The result is that I will get bitter, angry, stressed and resentful. Or I can choose to see it as protective, and the government as caring. If I see it that way, I feel safe, looked after, and like I might just get through this okay.

    This relates to food, too. If you see food as ‘bad’ for you and certain foods as ‘cheats’ or ‘guilty pleasures’, guess what? You’re going to feel bad when you eat them. You’re going to feel like you’re cheating, or that you are guilty. That takes away all the pleasure – and can trigger an emotional eating cycle (binge – feel remorse and guilt – so binge again).

    What if, instead, you were grateful that you have food to eat? Now more than ever this might feel a bit easier, given the strange and unprecedented time we are in. How fortunate are we that during this time we have technology to keep us entertained and in touch with loved ones, and stocked supermarkets and restaurants we can still go to for food, if we are fortunate enough to be able to afford it?

    Forget good food or bad food – it is all fuel and can all be enjoyed. Feeling grateful for having food at all, and removing the labels from individual foods, can completely remove the negative feelings that come with eating it, and instead make every meal an exercise in thankfulness.

Exercise: To put this into practice, I want you to write one thing you are grateful for (relating to food) before you eat any meal. If you have a whiteboard or chalkboard in your kitchen, even better – write it on there! Everyone will benefit from this attitude of gratitude, and it will make you view the meal you sit down for in a whole new way.

Once you have done this for 2 weeks, keep doing it if you enjoy it, but your mind will likely already be going to that grateful thought on its own.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

2. Rules are restrictive, and lead to a shift in perspective.

Guess what happened when we were told to stay at home, and not leave our houses except for occasional supermarket trips and 90 minutes of exercise daily? Suddenly, I am out there every day, running. RUNNING.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with running – I have done it on and off in my life but have never really called myself a runner, or someone who enjoys it. But now that it’s my only chance to get moving and get outdoors? I crave it every day, and feel amazing when it’s done.

Imagine flipping this now. When you put a rule around food – “I can only have sweets on the weekend” as an example – what do you think happens? Just like I crave running, you will find you are thinking about sweets, craving sweets, wanting them more and more. They will take up far more head space than sweets ever did before.

This will most likely lead to you breaking your self-imposed rule and eating them in the week, because they’re on your mind, after all. Then you will feel guilty for having broken your restriction, and so the cycle begins.

While the exercise restriction is currently working in my favour, food restrictions never do. I hope I am able to hold on to how grateful I felt to be able to get out and move my body even after this pandemic ends and our shelter-in-place regulations lift, so I can remember how lucky I am to be able to exercise and have a body that supports me through it.

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Exercise: Make a list of any ‘rules’ you have around food. Be honest – you may have to think for a bit to capture them all. Then, in a column next to the rule, list why you have that rule. There are good reasons for some food rules, after all – for example, I don’t eat meat for moral reasons, so I would put “moral reasons.” Caffeine makes me jittery, so I would put “makes me feel sick.” I am not here to suggest you start eating things that make you feel gross. But if the reason is “I think it makes me gain weight” or “I have always thought it was too high in calories” – anything that signifies restrictive eating or diet mentality, star these ones.

In the next column, put a number between 1 and 10 that signifies how hard it is for you to keep that rule. 1 is not hard at all, and 10 is really hard. For me, for example, not eating meat is at a 1 – I haven’t eaten it in 13 years and I don’t crave it or even like the smell or look of it anymore, so there’s no challenge to my willpower to not eat that. However, not eating chocolate would be a 10 – I can’t imagine going a day without chocolate, so if I had a rule around avoiding it, I would struggle!

Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

Remember that willpower is a finite resource. When you drain it throughout the day on denying yourself foods because of rules that you believe but which don’t actually have a good reason for existing, you are using valuable willpower that you could be putting into developing other healthy habits, learning a new skill, or – at this time – just maintaining your routine and trying to get through this pandemic.

Any that have a difficulty level of 5 or more double star. At the end of this, you want to really look at the starred and double-starred items and ask yourself if you can start to abandon those rules. Think of how freeing it would be if you no longer looked at foods with restrictions! You wouldn’t be drawn to that food all day long. You wouldn’t use up all your willpower resisting it. You wouldn’t think about it constantly. You would be, in a word, free.

Tell me your lessons from lockdown, in the comments below. Stay safe!