Disordered eating, binge drinking, impulse buying, screen exhaustion – do any of these sound familiar? If so, you are one of many people whose habits have been affected by COVID-19. Psychotherapist Noel McDermott is warning the nation to keep a close eye on these lifestyle changes before they spiral out of control. Habits formed can be difficult to break and can lead to longer-term lifestyle problems.
Increased alcohol consumption
We’ve seen increased alcohol consumption from the beginning of the pandemic as people turned to unhelpful coping strategies to deal with fear, anxiety and the disruption to life. Although alcohol can seem like immediate relief from stress, it actually increases the incidence of both anxiety and depression if used regularly. Tragically, we have seen a significant increase in alcohol-related deaths during the pandemic due to the increased levels of consumption – during the first nine months of 2020, deaths caused by alcohol hit a new high with a peak of 12.8 deaths per 100,000 people (according to ONS data).
As a nation, we have had to turn to online shopping for many non-essential items that we can no longer buy, such as clothes, consumer goods, etc. For most people, during normal times this use of online shopping wouldn’t be a significant issue and we all know the humorous comment about ’retail therapy’. What we have seen during the pandemic, however, is the increased ability and justification to impulse buy in response to stress and anxiety triggers. We are all receiving deliveries of goods on a daily basis so problematic shopping can be hidden.
Another challenging area has been an increase in disordered eating. We had already seen a rise in eating disorder admissions to hospital prior to the pandemic and this has increased. Serious eating disorders such as anorexia have the highest mortality rate of any mental health problem. But for most of us that isn’t the problem, across the board we have turned to comfort eating habits for a quick mood boost. It’s understandable and for the most part would not be a long-term problem, except that the trigger for this type of eating is a long-term problem.
The UK was already in an obesity crisis and we are looking like this is going to be significantly increased as we come out of the pandemic. We have a number of factors leading to this, comfort eating, the tendency to put on weight in the winter months and the sedentary lifestyle imposed by work from home dictates. The strategies we had in place to encourage everyday exercise (walk a few stops before getting on public transport on your way to work, use the stairs and not the lift at work, etc) are just not going to be available with many businesses still operating from home.
Psychotherapist Noel McDermott comments: ‘Inevitably the shift to a significantly online lifestyle during the pandemic has led to the acceleration of processes that were underway previously. For most, it’s not going to be a longer-term lifestyle problem, but we need to become aware of the processes involved so as not to create problems. Those processes involve hormonal changes that affect our mood, the old saying: all things in moderation. Most people remain unaware that blue screens (computers, phones, etc) produce a reward chemical called dopamine and we use this chemical to make ourselves feel good. In the same way that most people are unaware of their comfort eating, or if aware, feel it’s not a significant issue in normal times. However, these are not normal times, we are overdosing on dopamine because we are having to conduct most things online, hence the term: Zoom exhaustion. We are getting the sugar rush of online stimulation followed by the inevitable crash.’
How to stay in control of lifestyle changes
- Accept the new norm. Understand this is not short term. We have to make healthy adaptations to this pandemic, not invest in short term coping strategies. There is no going back to normality, there is only going forward into healthy or unhealthy adaption to this new and evolving ‘normal’.
- Alcohol consumption. Stop drinking, the rise in deaths should tell you how dangerous it is. If you can’t manage that then don’t drink regularly and when you do drink, stay well within the drinking limit set by the NHS or use non-alcoholic alternatives. If you can’t manage to cut down, or you notice a loved one that can’t, then get help. The sooner you ask for help the better.
- Get outdoors. Parks are vital, they have been heavily invested in within urban areas in the UK as they are known to have proven health benefits, they help us regulate our moods. If you are feeling angry, sad, lonely or anxious, go for a walk in your local park.
- Food and drink. Ensure you are hydrated, drink a couple of litres a day. Plan your food, eat at set times and be mindful. For sure, give yourself treats, but be thoughtful. Practice mindful eating where you notice what you are eating. Eat with others if you can, if you live alone arrange Zoom dinner parties with friends.
- Budget. Make shopping lists of what you need and stick to the lists. Again, allow yourself treats but budget and stick to it, try to keep your budget the same as pre-pandemic.
- HALT. With shopping for food and drink, gambling, and investing, do not engage in any of these activities for emotional regulation reasons. Use HALT with all these activities – don’t do these activities when Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. The Hungry may sound odd with food but it’s important with food to understand your dietary needs, to eat regularly and eat to plan. Like with hydration, if you wait till you are thirsty then you are dehydrated. Also, as eating becomes more disordered, so do the hungry/not hungry cues.
- Exercise. Get outdoors, get into your local parks, walk, jog, run, whatever works for you, just do it.
- Sleep. Sleep well and nap, regular sleep routines backed up with naps are vital.
- Social contact. Increase your outreach to family and friends, use the phone or any communication you can. A phone call, Zoom or Skype with a loved one has additional hormonal benefits in producing loving feelings which are the natural way we are designed to emotionally regulate. We get the same from close friends.
- Kindness. Be kind to yourself and others, get hugs from people in your bubbles. Let go of what you can’t control, practice being present in the moment, trust the future will be okay even if there is no evidence that it will be.
Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience in health, social care, and education, with a range of online therapy resources to help clients.
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