Grief and Binge Eating

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives upside down and has caused an increase in depression, anxiety, substance use disorders and eating disorders.  It has been difficult and stressful to manage having to stay home and be socially distant from others.  It is especially difficult if you have experienced losses during the pandemic.  

Grief is a normal reaction to any major loss.

If you've lost a loved one during the pandemic, you may have experienced complicated grief.  The normal feelings of yearning and sadness may have been complicated by not being able to be with your loved one or not even being able to go through normal rituals that can bring a sense of comfort and closure.  I have a close family member who has been seriously ill and hospitalized multiple times during the pandemic.  Because of the pandemic, I have had to provide whatever support I could via phone or facetime which has been very unsatisfying.

Grief can occur in response to many other types of losses.

Maybe during the pandemic, you've experienced other serious losses - loss of a job, the breakup of a significant relationship, loss of a long term friendship or you've been diagnosed with a serious illness (including COVID-19).  All of these losses can also be a cause for grieving.

Focusing on food and body image can be a distraction from the grief process.

In the beginning after a loss, you may experience a loss of appetite in response to the chaos, sense of loss of control, uncertainty and sadness you're feeling.  Restricting or controlling your food can serve as a way to numb yourself from these raw feelings.  But this is a false sense of control.  The pain you're feeling won't go away unless you meet it head on.  Emotions can't be fixed by food or by obsessing about your body.
If you find yourself feeling compelled to go on a diet, restricting your food, binge eating, isolating more to avoid any activities that involve food, this is a sign that you may be using food to self-medicate the pain of your loss and as you've heard me talk about, this only causes more problems.

As opposed to many people I know, I have quite a history of having to cope with grief.

The death of my son at the age of 29 was one of those experiences.  Reading about the death of 2 of President Biden's children reminded me of how many of us have lost children and how painful the experience can be.  My son, Noah's death, almost broke my spirit.  I wrote about this experience 9 years after his death when the grief was still surprisingly raw.  I recently had a dream about him which felt so real and the longing for him was still as strong as the day he died.  Several years ago, my brother who was only 13 months younger than I, died after a long struggle with addiction and its medical consequences.  At his death, I was surprised at the depth of pain and the sense of loss I felt at not having him in my life.  I began to speak about his life as a way to honor him, which I did in my TEDxPleasantGrove talk last year.

Everyone's experience of grief is unique - there is no "right" way to grieve.

As you can see, I tend to speak and write about my experiences with grief and this helps me to cope with the pain.  Using food to cope with loss is not uncommon.  After 9/11, studies showed a marked increase in emotional eating of "comfort foods."  But using food provides only temporary relief and doesn't address the central issue - the need to grieve a loss.  I could tell you about the 5 Stages of Grief or I can give you "coping tips and strategies" but what I've learned from my own experience with grief is:

1.   It's always surprising how much it hurts.  It's no wonder we want to find comfort wherever we can because loss and grief really hurt.  It feels like a kick in the chest, a punch in the gut and you may feel as if you can't handle it.

2.  Even when a loss feels overwhelming, we are all much stronger than we think.  If you allow yourself to feel whatever emotions you have - sadness, anxiety, anger, etc. even if you do it a little bit at a time, the pain will lessen.  Pushing down the pain with food only "feeds" the myth that you can't handle it.

3.  Don't let anyone tell you "you should be over it by now." We all grieve in different ways and for different time periods.  If, however, you find that you are unable to take care of yourself, to go to work, etc. after a reasonable period of time, you may be experiencing depression and you should reach out for help.

4.  Grief and loss don't just magically go away over time.  Grief comes in pieces.  At times all you feel may be gut-wrenching sadness, at other times you may feel regrets or longing.  And it's not time that makes it better, it's you feeling your emotions that make it better.

I will leave you with this:  Take care of yourself no matter what.  Eat regularly throughout the day. You must keep yourself strong for the hard work of grieving.  Spend some time in nature if you can.  Reach out for support from friends or from a professional.  As always, I advise that you be kind to yourself.  Don't judge yourself for how you've reacted to the loss whatever that loss is.  

I hope this was helpful.  

Dr. Carolyn

PS - If you're struggling with eating or body image issues and are ready for expert-level support, schedule a free consult