This 2020 lockdown has been challenging on so many levels. Many have lost their jobs, permanently or temporarily. Many are now working from home, without childcare. Those in partnerships are now sharing time and space they never had to before and for many, childcare dynamics have shifted. Not to mention, our kids are home from school and the burden of ensuring their work is complete and understood is on us as caregivers. If you have neurodiverse kids, this dynamic is even more challenging.
In my own home, my husband began working from home but as a college professor, so, our kids couldn’t exactly march through the background of his virtual classes in their underwear yelling for snacks. But, I also work from home and I also have video calls where clients share deeply emotional challenges and very real and personal dilemmas that would not be served with naked screaming kids in the background, either.
When we bought this house, I knew the loft of our walkout bungalow would be my office. I was pregnant with my youngest and had these grand visions of taking a break from working and looking over the railing, sipping coffee, watching my children play quietly and cooperatively. That is not the reality. Like, at all. Because with my family at home, my office now overlooked chaos. Loud, smelly, arguing, snack hoarding, Disney singing, Fortnite playing chaos. So, I had to relocate my office to my husband’s basement office which is approximately 10c.
I don’t know anyone who is excluded from this messy new reality. So, how does this shift in our reality translate to weight gain?
One of the reasons many are struggling with their eating habits right now is this huge loss of control we’re all experiencing. I can tell you without a doubt that even those with only a moderately challenging relationship with food, are struggling right now, too. Consider that much of our eating is emotional. Emotional eating is this catch-all phrase that we tend to toss out to express that we have no ability to control our eating and that our eating is somehow not rational so that must mean emotional. But, really, most of us don’t eat without emotion because we’re always feeling something. Maybe it’s not conscious but it’s still happening.
And not all emotional eating is dysfunctional, either. When I was a single mama and my son and I had a challenging day, baking cookies was our go-to. We’d have a few cookies, cuddle up on the sofa and watch funny cat videos on youtube. That’s emotional eating, too. Not dysfunctional. It’s more in line with self-care for us. Where it might break down to dysfunctional emotional eating is if we sat there and ate the entire batch of 60 cookies in one evening.
Baking and eating cookies together made us feel connected, loved, and emotionally safe. There’s nothing wrong with that. So, this falls into self-care. Of course, most of us have more than one coping mechanism and the challenge of Covid is that many of those strategies just aren’t available to us now.
One of my other self-care strategies is definitely shopping. I just love walking through the pedestrian streets at the Tanger Outlet and picking up small things for the kids. Bringing home a new headband for my daughter, or new PJs for my son, or some Lindt chocolate for the family – this is my serenity. I also loved yoga class. Sure, I can do yoga at home and of course, I do now, but I really miss being in that environment with other humans with common goals, enjoying my permission to sit, uninterrupted and breathe. But, with Covid- none of these tools are available to me.
We were asked to stay home unless it was absolutely necessary to go out. Even grocery shopping, which I also love, is different. It’s so stressful now with the questions and sanitizer at the door, the arrows on the floor I can never seem to remember to follow, the limited supplies and the long lineups, and the tired and anxious cashiers who want to be home safe, too. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe these precautions are necessary to keep us all safe but it closes off a lot of our routines.
If you were a gym-goer, you likely felt the loss of your sense of belonging when your gym closed. I used to go at 5am and we all called ourselves the 5am crew. We chatted between sets and during warmup and spotted one another. Perhaps you didn’t even realize how much you’d miss that because you weren’t really bonded with anyone there, but that connection is undeniable, even in passing. Loss of belonging and connection is very real. In fact, connection is one of our critical human psychological needs.
So, here we all are, in this common territory of the unknown. Our lives are completely different and we have no idea how long we will be living this way. Autonomy is another basic human psychological need and that is compromised for all of us right now.
The emotional discomfort this causes is very real. No one loves being told what they can and cannot do and very few of us love change. Particularly when it isn’t our decision. I don’t know about you but I HATE discomfort. Physical and emotional. I get migraines chronically and meds are often ineffective so leaning into discomfort is something I’ve had to learn to do. Like most of you, I don’t have the luxury of just being able to go sleep in a dark room and let the day pass. I’m a mom, wife, business owner, pet owner, friend, volunteer … there is no pause button in my world. So, my options are lean in and cope or suffer in misery. I don’t want that life.
What about emotional discomfort? Feeling the loss of autonomy leaves us reeling for control. We feel our control slipping away and so we grab onto what we CAN control to try to calm our anxiety. We feel fear about not working and being able to pay the bills and our anxiety rises. How do you feel this anxiety? I feel it in my stomach first – like a kick. Then, it moves up to my chest and my breathing becomes shallower. Something I only recently learned about myself is that as a result of my PTSD, I function in anxiety constantly even when I’m not conscious of it. So, to combat this, I’ve had to note the signs that my anxiety is rising. My first tell is my breathing. I begin yawning a lot but am unable to complete the yawn – same with sighing. I will take a deep breath but can’t complete it. Have you ever experienced that?
So, when I feel this, I have to take a moment, see the feelings, allow them, validate them, and tell myself I’m safe. I don’t know the outcome of any of this Covid stuff – none of us does. But, I do know that I can’t live through much more of it without the ability to get oxygen to my brain. Like, literally!
This is where most get into trouble. We do everything in our power to avoid discomfort and when we feel it, we have to fix it. Get rid of it. And if we’re not practising self-care our bandwidth for emotional discomfort is lower. Maybe you can patiently and lovingly talk your kids through their tantrums after a day of self-care but when you’ve not attended to you, your needs, your feelings – for weeks, you’re not going to be as patient. So, we are feeling far less tolerant as it is because our self-care strategies are not available. We feel the loss of autonomy, less connection – this is a perfect storm. You’re not flawed or broken – you’re on fire.
What is the one thing that we can do to scratch those emotional itches that we don’t have to leave the house for? Food. We’re home all day every day. So is the food. Food, for most, is connection. We share meals with family on special occasions. Holidays, weddings, birthdays, and even just random weekend BBQs with friends. So, reaching for food when we’re lacking connection makes complete sense.
Here’s the thing.
Baking cookies and enjoying a few is one thing. Baking cookies on Monday, bread on Tuesday, scones on Wednesday – and eating them all is dysfunctional coping. That isn’t in self-care territory anymore. That is distracting yourself from discomfort.
The real success lies in developing the skills of caring for ourselves when we’re emotionally activated. We must be able to feel. To express how we feel. Rather than just stop the emotion – the discomfort – at all cost. Are you thinking “why suddenly am I using food?” — because your other strategies aren’t possible because of our lockdown conditions. Even those who never coped with food before are now.
The behaviours we choose (consciously or otherwise) to cope with our emotional discomfort become habit through repetition. Our brains are designed to seek and solidify patterns to store to retain emotional energy. What we do often becomes unconscious. Like, the route to work. How often do you have to think about where to turn or what exit to take? Probably never. Because your brain recognized this pattern and built a physical neural pathway in your brain so you don’t have to think about it and your energy is available for other things.
Learning how to feel, and recognizing feelings and processing them before we become reactionary is the beginning of this journey. Be curious about those feelings and the discomfort they produce. The thing about emotions is that they’re truly harmless. They are temporary and not facts. I know fear feels like a fact but when our stress is active and we’re emotionally activated we see things differently. Catastrophically.
This is a LOT. If you Pile on the fear and worry about weight gain will it feel better? No. It will feel much worse. When we feel poorly, we do poorly. We don’t make decisions that are good for us when we don’t feel worthy of things that are good. Do you see the pattern?
I think the real goal for us all in this crazy time is to be tolerant and patient with ourselves. There really is never a good time to take on a heavy goal like fat loss or challenging your relationship with food – but trying to change ourselves while we’re on fire is very difficult. We aren’t going to nail it every week or every day. Give yourself some space for your humanness. Changing your relationship with food or your body composition is not a linear path even pre-covid. Some days, weeks, months are more challenging than others. That’s okay.
I also want you to consider if focusing on your relationship with food or your body composition is something you can reasonably take on right now? You know, it doesn’t have to be. There is nothing wrong with you for feeling like the world is just too heavy right now. While I am completely aware that my job is to help people change their body composition – my job is also to ensure the process is healthy. YOU are so much more than your body composition and you are worthy of compassion. So, give yourself some grace to move through this challenging time at a pace that preserves your mental health. No matter what our body composition, we can feel whole, happy, and like we’re enough. Maybe it’s time to put your focus there. <3