Why do people turn to binge eating to cope with stress, and when does binge eating indicate a disorder?
Many of us can remember a time where we ate more than usual, be it a second helping of food during a special occasion, rewarding ourselves after a stressful day, or indulging in our favourite snacks when feeling down. Food is very much embedded in our culture and early experiences, and we often turn to it for comfort. This could explain the long queues for bubble tea when the “circuit breaker” measures were tightened.
Stress can be a main driver of increased eating habits, especially during prolonged stressful periods like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Stress triggers the release of hormones that make us crave for high-energy food, such as those high in fat or sugar. It is also common for people to eat in response to emotions such as anger, tiredness, boredom, or sadness. Turning to food to cope with our emotions or stress is known as “emotional eating.”
Eating can help some cope by lowering the intensity of our emotions—and emotional responses—in the short term. However, emotional eating becomes problematic when it becomes the main method that we use to cope with our emotions. Repeated emotional eating over time may lead to stronger urges to eat, along with greater distress and guilt for overeating. When trapped in a cycle of overeating, emotional eating can become a risk factor for eating disorders.
Stress can be a main driver of increased eating habits, especially during prolonged stressful periods like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Eating Disorders
The heightened anxiety arising from COVID-19—and the increase in time spent at home due to safe distancing measures—may increase our propensity to overeat, and even trigger or exacerbate eating disorders.
One common eating disorder related to overeating is the binge eating disorder. This occurs when a person eats a very large amount of food uncontrollably and rapidly in a short time, to the point of discomfort.
Binge eating is often related to difficulties in managing anxiety and other distressing emotions. The uncertainty and restrictions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic can further erode one’s sense of control and the ability to cope with heightened emotions. Some may turn to binge eating to help regulate or control how they are feeling. However, this tends to be unhelpful in the long run, as the more one uses food to cope, the more it may intensify feelings of depression, shame, regret, guilt, or even disgust about themselves and how much they have eaten.
The Difference Between Overeating and Binge Eating
We may also eat more because of stress or boredom at home. However, this overeating may not signal an eating disorder.
To differentiate between overeating and binge eating, ask yourself the following:
- Am I eating so much that it can be considered excessive, not just by myself but by others?
- Am I eating uncontrollably, feeling “zoned out” while eating, or not noticing how much I ate?
- Am I eating much more quickly than normal?
- Am I eating so much that it feels painful or uncomfortable?
- Am I feeling disgusted, ashamed, regretful, anxious, or depressed during and after eating?
- Am I feeling embarrassed about eating so much that I eat in secret?
Answering yes to two or more of these questions could signal a deeper problem.
Do I Have a Binge Eating Disorder?
You might meet the criteria for having a binge eating disorder if you find that you are binge eating as described above, and if:
- You have been binge eating more than once weekly over three months.
- You are feeling very distressed about these binge eating episodes.
- Binge eating is affecting your social life, work, negatively or your daily functioning.
Where Can I Seek Help?
Having trouble managing your anxiety and emotions during this period? You can talk to a counsellor or clinical psychologist by calling the Viriya Therapy Centre at 6256 1311.
To find out if you have a binge eating disorder, or to manage binge eating, do reach out to the following services:
Singapore General Hospital Eating Disorders Programme
Telephone: +65 6321 4377
Adolescent Medicine Service at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH)
For children under 16. Please speak with a GP or polyclinic for a referral to this service.
The contributor is a Clinical Psychologist at Viriya Community Services.