Am I Hungry, Stressed, or Bored?

By Callie Dyer, MA, Resident in Counseling at Sunstone Counseling

We’ve all heard someone mention their fear of gaining the “COVID-19” and have seen the many memes about snacking more during social distancing. While these messages aren’t helpful for anyone since we have bigger concerns (i.e. a global pandemic) than putting on a few extra completely normal and non-threatening pounds, these messages remind us that our routines may have shifted significantly. The normal timing of our meals has likely changed and we are only a few steps away from our pantry all day long. We’re eating out less often, stuck in the house more, and most gyms are closed. Inevitably this means that our habits have adjusted and our body may change. You may have found yourself reaching for food more often throughout the day and wondering, “Am I hungry, stressed, or just bored?” Here are a few ways to untangle these emotions and identify your motivations for eating.

Differentiate emotional vs. physical hunger

Have you eaten in the past 3-5 hours? 

According to many dieticians, including Rebecca Scritchfield, RD, you should feel hungry approximately every 3-5 hours. While it might seem counterintuitive, consistently building meals and snacks into your daily schedule can help prevent mindless snacking. Depriving yourself through restricting portion size, frequency of food intake, or categories/types of foods can actually fuel the cycle of overeating, emotional eating, and binge eating. As Christy Harrison, RD, explains in her book Anti-Diet

“The pendulum has to swing back because you’ve been physically and psychologically deprived of food. When you’re living under a regime of deprivation, the body’s natural response is to eat as much as it can at any opportunity. Even if you feel like you’re eating ‘too much,’ it’s actually because you’re not allowing yourself (physically and mentally) to have enough.”

This means that your first task when you notice a desire to eat is to ask yourself if you’ve been allowing yourself to be fully nourished on a regular basis. 

Do you feel tired? Is your stomach growling? Are you experiencing any difficult emotions that you’d like to escape?

If you’ve been regularly nourishing your body throughout the day and you’re still experiencing a desire for food, it may be time to pause and investigate physical and emotional signs. First, you may want to refer to a hunger/fullness scale, like this one by Nicole Cruz, or list of hunger symptoms to identify if your body is signaling a need for food. 

If you’re not experiencing physical signs of hunger and you’ve eaten within the last few hours, take a few minutes to ask if you’re experiencing any challenging emotions. One way to do this is to utilize the HALT exercise and ask yourself if you feel any of the following sensations before you reach for the food:

  • Hungry
  • Angry
  • Lonely
  • Tired

Can you eat calmly and mindfully in this moment?

If you recognize that you are craving food as a form of comfort, that does not necessarily mean you shouldn’t eat. As Evelyn Tribole, author of Intuitive Eating, notes, “Remember: We all eat for comfort from time to time. That does not make you a failure, it’s part of normal eating.” Evelyn provides the following questions which can allow you to make the best decision regarding eating for comfort, 

“1. Do I really want to eat this? 

2. Will I enjoy it now or later? 

3. Will I really taste the food now? 

If it turns out that yes, you really want whatever you’re craving, then allow yourself to eat with no strings attached.” 

If you make the decision to eat as a form of self-soothing, slow down and try to savor the tastes and textures of your food. What do you notice? When you decide to eat something, try putting your phone down or turning the television off. Make an effort to stay in the present moment and focus on the pleasure and satiation with eating something that tastes good!

Find alternative ways to boost energy or relieve stress

Go for a walk, stretch, or have a dance party in your living room. Sometimes mindless eating is a sign that we could use some gentle movement or a change of scenery. Alternatively, you might need to take a nap, a warm bath, or self-soothe in a different way. The more you practice noticing your body’s needs and honoring them, the easier it will become to engage in alternative ways of coping with stress and boredom.

Build in some positive accountability and structure

Show yourself some self-compassion

Remember, this is an incredibly stressful time. You might be consciously or unconsciously concerned about getting sick, loved ones getting sick, financial strains, your children’s schooling, feeling lonely and missing friends, etc. We are all experiencing collective trauma and grief to varying degrees. It is completely understandable that your body needs more rest during this time. Repeat after me: eating more and working out less than usual has NOTHING TO DO WITH YOUR WILLPOWER. It just means you are instinctively taking care of your body while it is under an enormous amount of stress. 

Additional Resources

How to Connect with Your Hunger and Know When to Eat by Nicole Cruz

Why and How to Give Yourself Permission to Eat Anything by Evelyn Tribole

Why COVID-19 Is Fueling Disordered Eating by Christie Dondero Bettwy