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Overeating during the shutdown? Don’t beat yourself up about it!

If you find yourself reaching for a piece of pie, chocolate or ice cream during this national shutdown, you’re not alone. Long before this crisis, Americans had difficulty with emotional eating. 
 
A 2013 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association revealed that 38 percent of U.S. adults reported having overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress, and of those individuals, 49 percent reported doing so weekly or more. 
 
For a smaller percentage of people — 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men — stress eating results in binge eating disorder, the most common eating disorder in the United States.
 
To tackle disordered eating, whether during a crisis or not, we must understand why we’re overeating, then take steps to break the cycle of anxiety, shame and sadness that characterizes the disorder. One way to do that, studies have shown, is through something I think we can all especially benefit from: self-compassion.
 
First, we must understand who overeats, and why. Researchers know that people who struggle with emotional eating and binge eating have trouble calming down when faced with conflict and upsetting feelings — emotions that are in even greater supply during a pandemic. “Those who emotionally eat may be overwhelmed with emotions like anxiety, shame or sadness,” said Marcella Cox, a psychotherapist who specializes in the treatment of emotional eating. Turning to food is one way to distract from and cope with these unpleasant feelings, she said, rather than confront them.
 
Such behavior can be comforting, at least temporarily. “For individuals predisposed to binge eating, overeating releases dopamine, a 'feel-good' chemical in the brain that elicits pleasure,” said Jennifer Lombardi, a certified eating disorder psychotherapist at Kaiser Permanente in Stockton, Calif. But once these warm and cozy feelings fade, shame reemerges, as does the urge to overeat, leading to a troubling cycle.
 
Self-compassion can help disrupt this cycle in three ways: by validating the feelings that lead to emotional eating, by soothing the body and mind, and by dismantling the shame that comes with the disorder.
 
How self-compassion validates our feelings
 
Even if we can’t change our circumstances, according to Ann Saffi Biasetti, a clinical psychotherapist who specializes in treating eating disorders, “self-directed kindness can help us notice and accept our struggles.”
 
Right now, those struggles can include anxiety about our health and the health of our loved ones, especially those who are elderly or immunocompromised; concerns about our financial situations; difficulty obtaining food; worries about how the lockdown is affecting our children emotionally and educationally; and general boredom and restlessness.  
 
To help her patients acknowledge their distress, Biasetti uses a self-compassion exercise. “I ask my patients to place a hand somewhere on their body that feels safe and comforting,” she said. Next, Biasetti asks them to take deep breaths and recite something like: “Out of fairness, this is a moment of suffering, and I acknowledge how hard it is.”
 
Simply noticing and acknowledging one’s struggles can settle distressing emotions, Bisaetti said.
 
How self-compassion soothes the mind and body
 
Using self-compassion to deal with emotions can calm the emotional and physical stress that fuels unhealthy eating behavior, Bisaetti said. Consider recent research, published in the journal Appetite. 
 
For the study, 60 British women ages 18 to 50 who suffered from eating disorders completed a series of questionnaires that asked about their eating behavior, mental health, and tendency toward self-criticism and self-compassion. 
 
Half of the study participants used a self-compassion-guided meditation to cope with their negative emotions, while the other half used a self-critical strategy.
 
The researchers found that the women who completed the self-compassion exercise reported less desire to overeat than those who did not complete the meditation. In an email interview, Lucy Serpell, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University College London and lead author of the study, said, “It was surprising and promising to find that a brief self-compassion exercise can impact people’s emotions, as well as the amount they ate.”
 
Of course, that study wasn’t done under the kind of circumstances we are caught in. The never-ending bad news and mounting worries of the coronavirus crisis can catapult the body into the “fight or flight” response, a stressful state of arousal that can cause muscle tension and shallow breathing. Studies indicate that this state can lead to overeating, as well as high blood pressure and mental health concerns.
 
Researchers have found, however, that self-directed kindness can ease the flight-or-fight response as well. “When individuals show themselves warmth and compassion, the soothing part of the brain is activated,” Serpell said. And once the body relaxes, the knot of tough emotions begins to settle, which helps people think more clearly about their eating behavior and make healthier choices.
 

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