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Hi, my name is Emily Simonian and I’m a Licensed Clinician at Thriveworks in Washington, DC. The question that was asked was, “How do you fight food cravings during COVID-19?” Using food to self-soothe is really common and can be so instinctive that we may not even be able to recognize when we’re doing it.

We equate food with happiness and celebrations like having cake at a birthday party or treat it as an indulgence if we’re feeling sad or if we’ve had a bad day or maybe recently, we reach for it when we’re bored at home all the time during a national crisis. So let’s start here.

If you aren’t sure if you’re using food to work through your feelings, a few general indicators that you might be are if you find yourself searching for something to eat, but nothing sounds satisfying; if eating puts you into a trance or numbs you out; if you eat as a way to relax; if you continue to eat, even when it feels like it’ll never be enough.

So hearing that, if you feel like you might be using food to self-soothe, you’re in good company. I think a lot of us have experienced emotional eating at some point because it’s a fast and easy way to regulate emotions. Eating causes a release of dopamine in the brain and it’s really stimulating. So it makes sense that we reach for food in a low arousal state like boredom. And of course recognizing actual hunger versus emotional hunger is key.

So let’s say you’re at home trying to work and you find yourself wanting something to eat, but you’ve just had a meal.

When we’re fighting cravings, we’re relying on our sense of taste to light up that pleasure center in the brain. But maybe we can think about trying to rely on some of our other senses to calm ourselves. So for example, like lighting a scented candle or using essential oils, stepping outside to get a little vitamin D and fresh air or using light therapy if you have a bright lamp or something like that in your house. You can sip a hot or cold cup of tea, wrap up in a blanket or a comforting feeling or rely on your tactile senses by maybe squeezing something like a stress ball or using worry beads.

Another way to think about this is sometimes when we’re snacking, we’re snacking mindlessly or zoning out and being mindful is in direct opposition to that. As a reminder, or if you aren’t familiar, mindfulness is an attitude or experience of being totally aware within a moment. It’s been used for over 2000 years and it’s still used in therapy today.

A simple mindfulness exercise that can help with food cravings is turning your focus away from your thoughts about wanting food and focusing instead on sensations within your body. And we want to do this in a nonjudgmental way. Always. We’re just simply noticing what’s going on in the body. For example, it’s temperature; where you may be holding tension; the way it feels to sit in a chair.

The idea here is to not fall into cognitive autopilot and get swept away thinking about cravings instead too, place your focus someplace else.