Compelled to snack
Are you constantly traveling into the kitchen, opening the refrigerator, and grabbing snacks to pop in your mouth? Do you find yourself baking homemade cupcakes, even though you haven’t finished the cookies you made last night? If so, you’re not alone. It seems like nearly everyone is posting photos of their latest, greatest baking projects on Facebook. It’s like #carb-loading is the new norm.
As is binge-watching and non-stop YouTube viewing for adults and kids. For parents whose kids are now around all day, old limits on YouTube and television have mostly fallen by the wayside.
It’s understandable that we’re baking and binge-watching. In our pre-coronavirus lives, if we were stressed, we could seek comfort in a variety of healthy ways. We could go to the gym or to church or synagogue. We could go out with friends. We could go to Pilates and get a massage.
These activities, which are enjoyable and help us deal with emotional distress, become our habits or rituals. Rituals create feedback loops in our brains—the core belief of my OCD therapy—and these loops are part of their power. If a person goes to get a massage every time she has a cramp in her neck, the bodywork by a skilled practitioner helps relieve tension, but the behavior also trains her brain to expect relief. The habitual nature of this strategy tells her brain that a massage means no more neck pain.
Compelled to watch
Source: Amateur Hub/Pixels
Today, we need more comfort than ever, yet our options are seriously limited. In many places, we can’t go to a massage place or on a hike. The gym and houses of worship are closed.
Plus, if we have kids, they’re home all day. Every day. Hour by hour. Minute by minute. For some parents, the school closings have created huge discomfort. For me, this is the biggest challenge. I really rely on my kids being at school to give me the time alone that I need to maintain control.
So what do we do? We look for new ways to numb feelings of discomfort and to bring us joy, specifically those we have at home—eating, baking, watching Netflix, even drinking alcohol. (See my post "Can Corona Cause Relapse?" if you're worried about addiction.)
In my normal life, I go to Pilates, and it makes my whole body feel better. I actually refer to Pilates as my “medicine.” Now I can’t go to Pilates. So, what do I do? I snack on popcorn. I could go online and find virtual Pilates. Maybe I should. But to be honest, when would I do that Pilates? I’m in a house with little kids. I have clients. I have teachers scolding me via e-mail and giving my children F’s if their work is not uploaded at a certain time.
So, you know, popcorn.
The woman with the neck cramp who used to get a massage now may take two Motrin and three brownies instead. This seems like a harmless substitution, but she (and I) are also creating a new feedback loop for our brains. Every time she does this, she reinforces this loop. Her brain has a new association: Feel bad? Eat brownies.
After 14 days of any type of behavior, it feels like a habit. Which leads me to a question I'm now getting asked quite often: "What are the lasting effects of these behaviors?"
People have reached out to me with this concern. Other common concerns I've heard include:
- “Help! I can’t stop eating!”
- “Am I creating bad habits that won’t go away?”
- "After this is over, will I be so attached to carbs and cookies that I won’t be able to stop?”
- “What about TV and YouTube? Will all this screen time become a new way of life?”
My answer? It will become a new way of life if you chose to let it.
Curbing Bad Behaviors Now
Right now, we’re being forced into some of our laziest habits. Of course, we are still making our own choices, but the environment is not helping us make the healthiest, most slimming ones. As of now, many of us have been staying at home for five weeks. The longer these stay-at-home orders and the habits we're using to cope last, the harder it will be to reel in the indulgences.
What should we do? Start creating and enforcing new habits now, and reconnecting to old, healthier ones. Don’t wait for some abstract “after” to stop relentless snacking or to get control of your TV watching.
Here’s how to start:
- Go to Bed and Wake Up On-Time — What we need now is structure. If your structure involves late-night binge-watching and eating, that’s your new habit. Return to your old bedtime, and your old wake-up time instead. It isn’t really Sunday every day just because you’re at home. This is still your real life. And if you keep pushing your bedtime later for comfort, your brain associates staying up too late with comfort. You want your brain to associate your normal bedtime and wake-up time with comfort.
- Get Dressed — Even if you have nowhere to go, get dressed in the morning. Staying in your pajamas all day conveys a message to your brain of sleep and relaxation. You don't want to step into the day with an "I'm still half-asleep" mindset. This type of thinking can lend itself to overeating and lounging.
- Floss and Brush Your Teeth — Not only will your dentist be super proud of you, but it's less likely that you'll snack when your mouth feels minty fresh and clean.
- Get Outside — Stay safe, but you need at least 10 minutes of sunlight per day. Use good judgment about how to do that, but get yourself outside. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to OCD, and we all know that lack of sunlight has been linked to depression. Use responsible sunlight exposure, but it’s an important element of controlling yourself. Vitamins A and D are also essential for immunity functioning.
- Tell Yourself to Eat Your Vegetables — Your thoughts control your actions, but your actions also create habits that reinforce your brain's beliefs. Meaning what you do is more important than what you think when it comes to curbing compulsions. You might think about brownies, but don’t eat the brownies. Imagine how a parent would speak to their child about healthy behaviors. A parent would likely tell the child, “If you eat all your vegetables, then you may have one brownie.” It can be pretty effective to speak to yourself with similar language.
- Set Yourself a Baking Budget — OK, OK, you want to bake cookies. But don’t do it every day. Don’t make eating baked goods the thing you do compulsively for comfort. Just slow your roll. You’ll eat less if you bake less. End of story. Bake twice a week, maybe. Make an awesome salad the other nights.
- Hum — Humming is a quick and easy way to reduce stress immediately. This activity has been proven to reduce stress and increase feelings of love. Plus, it is impossible to eat and hum at the same time. I know; I’ve tried it before. So, hum away.
We can’t control a lot of things right now, but when it comes to what we put in our mouths in our own homes, we actually have a choice.