While many people joke, perhaps in an effort to avoid painful feelings, about gaining the “quarantine 15” or needing to “socially distance from the fridge,” others are laden with guilt, shame, hopelessness, and helplessness about what feels like an insatiable urge to eat while in quarantine. What meaning can we make of the way in which so many people are coping with this pandemic by eating excessively in an effort to self-soothe?
Deprivation is a trigger for eating excessively.
In the midst of this pandemic and with the advent of stay-at-home orders, we are finding ourselves in a state of deprivation. We are deprived of social and physical contact, livelihoods, routines, and a sense of freedom and safety. Research into Binge Eating Disorder shows that psychological or physiological deprivation can precede a binge (see Overcoming Binge Eating by Dr. Christopher G. Fairburn)1.
Deprivation does not mean the same thing for each person and we can experience deprivation in many different ways. Some of us experience deprivation as literal starvation while others experience it as metaphorical starvation. Literally, we can be starving for food when undernourished. Metaphorically, we may feel starved for connection, pleasure, self-soothing, or relief.
Deprivation is a form of disrupted attachment.
According to psychologist John Bowlby’s attachment theory2, insecurity and fear arising from threats of separation activate attachment behaviors (e.g., proximity seeking). Deprivation, in the current circumstances, can be a form of separation and ultimately can cause a sense of pain and emptiness. In the pain and emptiness, there is a hunger or strong drive to fill ourselves up. Food becomes a substitute for what we are deprived of – connection, hope, comfort, safety, and pleasure. Food can superficially meet our needs and help us run away from discomfort. While eating excessively may grant a sense of momentary relief and can give us temporary, pleasant feelings, it is not actually fulfilling because we are not actually being fed. It is a distraction.
We can take steps towards healing our relationship with food when we make the unconscious conscious and when we can put our thoughts and feelings into words.
Part of healing our relationship with food during quarantine involves becoming more conscious of it. Making something conscious gives us the opportunity to respond differently. If we know what is driving our behavior, then we have choices. Next time we find ourselves reaching for food when we are not physically hungry, we can check-in and see what we are longing for or needing. Is it love or connection? If so, we can think about reaching out to a friend or loved one. Is it safety because things feel unsteady? If so, we can say to ourselves, “I feel unsteady right now” and do a routine that helps us come back to a sense of regulation, such as yoga, breathing, making a fort with our spouse or kids, planting herbs or flowers, and anything else that reminds us of stability. When we can put unpleasant thoughts and feelings into words, it makes them more manageable.
The Buddhist adage goes, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” We can apply this here so as to remind ourselves to notice the pain and sit with it but not cause suffering by acting on it maladaptively or judging it. By sitting with our pain during quarantine, we can make a choice about what would be helpful. It is also important to honor our feelings as legitimate – the deprivation is real. How are you choosing to honor your feelings?
1 Fairburn, C. G. (2013). Overcoming binge eating. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
2 Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York: Basic Books.