You’re Not Stress Eating, You’re Surviving

Your trauma response may explain why you can’t stop snacking

Isolated at home, attempting to complete a project, you berate yourself once again for your lack of focus today. You fight the urge to open your social media apps again and meander to the kitchen. You peer into the pantry, rummage through the fridge, before turning away, disinterested in the multitude of options you stockpiled away before the store shelves emptied.

Moments later, you’re back in the kitchen, reaching for the first thing that sounds moderately appetizing. Instead of returning to your work, you slump into a familiar position on your couch and mindlessly munch away with the TV on, a feeble attempt to distract your frenetic, wandering mind.

Sound familiar?

Depending on how hard your area has been hit, you’re either bracing for impact or living through it in realtime. It’s inescapable but somehow you must find a way to work, parent, live through it.

Your apathy frustrates you; after all, you hear about hospitals described as war zones but you feel disconnected, no personal tether to the frontlines and the horrors happening there. You know it’s a privilege to shield yourself from that, so exactly why can’t you get your freakin’ act together?

It’s because you’re still experiencing trauma, albeit on a slightly different scale.

But instead of shaming ourselves for coping in whatever ways we can, let’s just call it what it is. You’re not stress eating. You’re surviving.

Are we all experiencing trauma?

According to the DSM-5, the current manual for the assessment and diagnosis of mental disorders, a traumatic event is defined as:

Any event that involves exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence that has the potential to be traumatic.

Exposure may be direct, but may also be witnessed or indirect. If you or someone you know falls ill or dies, or if you’re triggered by memories of past illness, compounding exposures impact how well we can withstand the allostatic load.

Repeated indirect exposure also has the potential for producing trauma, such as the burden borne by first-responders, medical teams, and health professionals combatting this disease on the frontlines.

In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, where every facet of daily life has been impacted and the human toll has yet to be fully measured, I think the answer must be yes. We are absolutely experiencing trauma on a global and personal scale.

How does trauma affect us?

The short answer: it depends.

The longer, more nuanced answer is that it’s impossible to predict how you’ll respond to any situation until you’re thrust into it. Depending on past experiences, learned or innate coping mechanisms, and the resources you have available at the time, you may respond in a way that seems baffling to the naked eye.

While some among us seem totally resilient in the face of a global pandemic, crushing the rest of the mere mortals at the work-from-home-while-homeschooling-with-a-smile game, others revert to a near-catatonic state.

Here’s a brief breakdown of how trauma affects us in several significant domains.

Physical

The physical response to trauma, particularly chronic and ongoing trauma such as a global pandemic, does not manifest the same way as acute trauma.

When you’re involved in a car accident, let’s say, you may experience bodily injury (hopefully not serious), an intense and sudden onset of fear, and the shockwaves that follow. The physical effects many of us are experiencing now, however, look markedly different.

We’re all on edge and maintaining a state of excessive alertness wears on you. We can’t sustain this heightened vigilance indefinitely, but our bodies are sure as hell going to try. We’re programmed to scan our environment for information and patterns that indicate danger — anyone glued to the news cycle right now? Fatigue and exhaustion are common, as is disturbed or interrupted sleep, insomnia, and general aches and pains.

So yes, while some people hopped right to it and kicked off their home workouts without hesitation, there’s an explanation for why you can’t summon the strength to pull yourself off the sofa.

It’s perfectly acceptable to sit and rest. Your body is protecting you, even if it doesn’t know what it’s protecting you from. Why overburden your body’s ability to ward off infection or illness by stressing it beyond its capacity right now?

Cognitive

The cognitive piece is complex and I’m admittedly not an expert in this realm. But I’m confident I’m not the only person struggling with intrusive thoughts, poor concentration, or difficulty completing the simplest of tasks.

To achieve higher-level thought processes, we first need to feel physically safe and secure. From a survival standpoint, it makes perfect sense. Our brains will not prioritize complex thinking and strategizing when we’re preoccupied with looking out for №1.

When our survival instinct is kicking in, the prefrontal cortex, or “thinking center” of the brain, is deactivated or under-activated. Meanwhile, the more primitive brain functions, such as the “fear center” in the amygdala, are kicked into high gear. We often don’t consciously register this shift, making it all the more confusing as to why we just can’t seem to get anything done.

If you find yourself in the same boat, here’s a gentle reminder: it’s impossible to be as productive as you were before a global pandemic rocked our world.

That’s enough to diminish anyone’s ability to work at 100% capacity.

Behavioral

Social withdrawal and isolation are no longer optional. Even if you’re forced to leave your home for work or essential tasks, most options to interact with other people face-to-face are off the table.

As social beings, we naturally crave a space to build community. It’s one of our most basic, intrinsic human needs. The introverts of the world might have been asking for this, but you’ll feel that loss of connection no matter where you fall on the spectrum.

Another interesting behavioral trauma response is the loss of interest in normal activities. Crappy timing, right?

It seems like it could be the perfect time to learn a new skill, practice a hobby, learn a new language, finish a project (there’s no shortage of people encouraging you to do at least one of those things) but if you’re thinking, “Maybe now isn’t the time…” you’re likely right.

When we emerge on the other side of this pandemic, there will be time to pursue what brings you joy and purpose. Perhaps you’ll discover a new purpose, or rededicate your work to something that brings meaning to your life.

But for now, there’s nothing wrong with pouring what energy and time you do have into caring for yourself and others, productivity and personal development be damned.

Emotional

Flip-flopping from numbness and detachment to feelings of anxiety or panic isn’t out of the ordinary during a trauma response. You may notice yourself feeling irrationally angry (though, I think this is perfectly valid and justified) and hyper-irritable.

There is even a place for feeling guilt, grief, or gratitude depending on your situation. As we learn more and more about how social injustices are magnified and class privilege is unequally distributed, uncomfortable emotions arise and we feel ill-equipped to fully process them, adding to our anxiety.

In the past, the three survival strategies of Fight, Flight, or Freeze might have been sufficient. But with prolonged or chronic trauma, emotions may broach into the territory of apathy, essentially a Flop response. Instead of bracing for a battle, high-tailing it away from danger, or playing dead, this response is equivalent to taking the brain offline for a while, in the hopes it might minimize the pain of the ensuing trauma.

Our brains crave a reprieve from these uncomfortable emotions and it drives us towards one of the few pleasures that remain available: food.

At this point, you can forget everything you think you know about emotional eating, how it’s “wrong” or “bad” or a sign of weak self-control. We crave control and falsely believe we can exercise complete sovereignty over our bodies. But there is no way to separate what sustains us from what comforts us, nor is there a need to.

Eating is connected to survival —when food is scarce, access to food brings a sense of security that ensures we have what we need to survive.

Eating is inherently emotional because it is essential.

Emotional eating is not a bad thing

I repeat: emotional eating is not a bad thing.

In my work as a dietitian, emotions are often a check engine light, alerting us there’s something amiss and impacting how we relate to food and our body. But I hear again and again how we need to “stop eating our feelings” or “finally put an end to emotional eating.” The reality is, these eating behaviors are serving a purpose. They are a coping mechanism.

We’re taught emotional eating is a “problem” to be “fixed” because we often lack other coping mechanisms. Even if we have other ways to cope in our arsenal, quarantines and social distancing have likely eliminated some or all of those options.

As temporary as eating may be, it might be the most accessible option for us in the moment. It might be the best, more reliable, or quickest tool we have to start to feel better. We need a distraction, something familiar, a way to ground ourselves and feel safe and secure. Preparing food and the act of eating channels our energy and gives us temporary purpose or a way to connect to others. We get a little hit to the pleasure center of our brain, a surge of energy as our body digests carbs, protein, fat, and it feels good.

And that is OK. You’re not doing anything “wrong”.

We are imperfect beings and part of that means coping with messy emotions might get messy. The stress builds each day and without a definite timeline, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.

If you feel compelled to eat, your body is performing beautifully in this moment —it’s preparing you for the long haul, conserving resources, ensuring you have the best odds stacked in your favor when shit hits the fan.

This may do little to quell your fears or ease your stress, but trust that there is come a time when nutrition comes back into the picture. For now, carry on eating however, whenever — your body is doing exactly what it’s designed to do.

It’s surviving.

Note: If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 (TALK)

References

  1. Kozlowska K, Walker P, McLean L, Carrive P. Fear and the Defense Cascade: Clinical Implications and Management. Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2015;23(4):263–287. doi:10.1097/HRP.0000000000000065
  2. Pai A, Suris AM, North CS. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in the DSM-5: Controversy, Change, and Conceptual Considerations. Behav Sci (Basel). 2017;7(1):7. Published 2017 Feb 13. doi:10.3390/bs7010007

Lover of carbs and puns, call me Cara Carbstreet | Anxious Millennial | Coffee Enthusiast | Non-diet Dietitian

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