Overeating, comfort drinking: The pesky pandemic habits that are still with us

For many of us, the habits we picked up during the dark days of Covid have since become established behaviours

It’s been six months since Covid restrictions were lifted in Ireland, and we made our way back towards “normal” life. But for many of us, the habits – both good and bad – that became engrained over the previous two years as we moved in and out of lockdown have been hard to shake.

So how do we tackle the comfort eating and drinking that got us through the dark days, but have since become established behaviours? How can we overcome persistent loneliness, or leave behind the social anxieties that are still holding us back from fully engaging with the world again? We asked some experts for advice.

Comfort eating

Stuck at home during lockdown and working within an arm’s reach of the fridge, many of us turned to treat foods to offer comfort and distraction, creating habits and addictions that have been hard to overcome for some.

“Stress-eating” is often a reaction to our environment, says cognitive behavioural therapist Susi Lodola. Increased levels of stress during the pandemic led to high cortisol levels, which are linked to overeating, she explains, adding that we often turn to foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat to comfort or reward ourselves.

But “emotional eating doesn’t fix emotional problems”, Lodola says. “Not only does the original emotional issue remain, but you may evoke further difficult emotions such as guilt, worthlessness, depression and hopelessness. One of the consequences of turning to food for comfort is that it creates neural pathways in your brain that take over your body’s normal physiological responses and you confuse emotional hunger with physical hunger.”

The potential weight gain can lead to weight-related health issues, which “is often addressed with restrictive diets that are not sustainable”. “Restrictive and unsustainable diets lead to the endless diet trap of repeated weight loss followed by weight gain… The danger of following restrictive diets over time is the development of eating disorders such as binge eating or bulimia.”

Lodola says there is “clear evidence from numerous studies that eating disorders increased during the pandemic”. One UK study of people with eating disorders found that 80 per cent of respondents reported that their symptoms had worsened.

“In my own practice I have seen an increase in binge eating, not only among people who already had this eating disorder before the pandemic, but also an increase among the general population,” Lodola says. “Unhealthy eating habits created during the pandemic have been difficult to change.”

One of the biggest stumbling blocks in breaking a habit is “that we give up after the first hurdle”, she says. “We start off with the best of intentions and stick to a new habit for a short period of time and then inevitably we fall off the wagon and relapse. Instead of picking ourselves up and getting on with it, we tend to let the internal voice tell us ‘we are useless and we just can’t do this‘ and we give up. Relapse is part of the circle of change.”

Lodola says breaking a habit is possible without having to rely on willpower and can instead be a learned skill. “Establish what your triggers are and see if you can avoid them if they are in your environment. If your triggers are emotional, learn how to fully let yourself experience the emotions without “numbing them with food. Learn to feel your emotions in your body and ride them out like a wave. Emotions may be difficult and sometimes painful but they do not last forever”.

Using replacement habits to change the unwanted pattern is another effective tool, she explains. “So, instead of drinking sugary drinks with your meals, replace them with sparkling water. Or replace the midmorning coffee and muffin with a snack made up of fruit and nuts or a healthy smoothie instead.”

A key to changing and creating habits is to activate the reward system in your brain. A good way to do this is to replace your unwanted habit with another one that gives you joy. This will release dopamine and your brain will form new habit loops.

“Changing and creating habits takes time,” Lodola says. “Being consistent and patient will get you there.”

Wine o’clock

A study by Drinkaware published in May found that Covid had changed the way we drink, concluding that, as a result of the pandemic, “as a society we are not the same as we were, and alcohol consumption, in terms of motivation, volume and frequency, is not the same as it was”. The research, which analysed how our behaviours changed in the initial lockdown in 2020 and have transformed into new rituals around alcohol, noted an increase in binge drinking, more regular drinking and drinking to cope.

Addiction psychotherapist Orlagh Reid says the pandemic has created “a new wave of problem drinkers who are seeking help and support to address or manage problems they never realised had developed”. Often it is their partners who are seeking support.

“Despite all the drink aware coverage in recent years, people genuinely do not realise that alcohol is an addictive substance. Worryingly, many drinkers often do not realise they have developed a dependency and it only comes to light when they try to cut down or stop altogether,” she says.

Reid has noticed an increase in the number of women seeking counselling for alcohol-related problems – “more specifically women who drink wine, far exceeding the low risk guidelines of 11 standard drinks per week. It’s easy to reach this limit after two bottles of wine [per week]. The fact that wine is still very much glamourised and minimised, obscures the reality that wine is alcohol – a mood-altering drug.”

Comfort drinking and habitual drinking can quite quickly progress to problematic alcohol misuse, Reid says. “Alcohol-related problems can have more of an obvious impact than the alcohol itself. For example, recovering from hangovers, overconsumption of painkillers, recovering from binge drinking, work absenteeism, unplanned pregnancy, financial cost of alcohol use, relationship problems, impaired parenting and health problems like liver problems, anxiety, depression, dehydration, poor diet and low mood.”

She urges people to watch out for signs of unhealthy attitudes towards alcohol that may have crept in such as “ambivalence, minimising, rationalising, dismissing, reward thinking and preoccupied behaviours connected with alcohol use.”

If someone is concerned about their attitudes or relationship with alcohol, or wants to stop, Reid says they should raise their awareness on harmful drinking and “talk to friends and family and get support from others. Making many small and positive lifestyle changes can have a strong influence on both your relationship with alcohol and yourself. The greatest challenge is not making the mistake of trying to do it alone.”

Social anxiety

Social distancing, masks, avoiding crowded places and handshakes, and even keeping away from our friends and loved ones required a huge shift in behaviour. Re-engaging with the world outside our own front door hasn’t been an easy task for many of us since restrictions lifted. Six months on, some people’s social lives have yet to recover, and many of us are still very nervous of being in crowded places or attending events or gatherings, no matter how small.

“Lockdowns and social distancing would have provided relief for people with social anxiety,” Lodola says, but “the lack of social interactions for an extended period of time can also maintain and increase social anxiety for people who did not experience social anxiety before the pandemic”.

The easing of social restrictions has also led to anxiety as people adjust to their new social environment. “The lack of social interaction may have reduced confidence and heightened fears that something bad is going to happen. The constant media stream about Covid numbers and deaths would have heightened the fear centre in the brain and, as a result, many people are still afraid to go back to life as it was pre-pandemic,” Lodola explains.

“Social anxiety develops because you may perceive threats in any particular social situation. We overestimate the threat and underestimate our ability to cope with that perceived threat… We believe a catastrophe will occur.”

In trying to manage social anxiety, “the underlying perception of social threat needs to be tested and challenged”, Lodola says. Gathering reliable information about Covid from a trusted person, such as your GP, is a good place to start. “Having all the facts and giving people tools to protect themselves may help them to start taking small steps in the right direction.”

Lodola recommends listing the situations you are avoiding and asking yourself why you’re avoiding them. “Challenge your perceived threat in that situation. Ask yourself, ‘what is the worst possible outcome?’, then ‘what is the best possible outcome?’” She then suggests asking yourself, “what is the most likely outcome?” which she adds, “is going to be somewhere in the middle”.

Choose an activity to start with and “do it several times to increase your confidence in your ability to do it”, Lodola says. After which, you can move on to the next situation you’ve been avoiding and approach it in the same manner.

“It’s important to start small, as it might be overwhelming to start with a bigger occasion which will only increase anxiety and the person will retreat further.”

Loneliness

“The pandemic and associated restrictions removed all spontaneity from our lives,” says psychotherapist Linda Breathnach. “We could no longer just randomly call to a friend, or meet up for a walk, or a pint or a glass of wine. We had many plans cancelled because of people being close contacts, symptomatic or testing positive. We got used to not being able to look forward to things and expecting things to change constantly.”

Feeling lonely was a very normal response, but for some, that loneliness has persisted.

“Essentially we got out of the habit of connecting the way we used to, and now that we have the freedom to reconnect again, some friendships have just slipped.”

Breathnach says she is seeing evidence “of people who have withdrawn as a result of the pandemic restrictions and just haven’t quite managed to return to do what they used to do pre-pandemic”.

“Likewise some people who might appear to be functioning well by continuing to work or care for their families are not actually connecting with friends or loved ones on a meaningful level. If we don’t stay connected or have meaningful conversations, we can forget our importance and risk isolating ourselves further.”

Breathnach believes it may be harder to reach out to people we still care about but haven’t seen for some time because “we sometimes forget we were in a pandemic and there was a good reason for losing touch. Instead we feel guilty and beat ourselves up and put it on the long finger, rather than just picking up the phone or calling around.”

Friendships are essential because they help us feel connected, Breathnach says. “It’s always great to have company when going to events, going out for walks, for dinner. It helps our confidence, helps us to clear our thoughts and brings meaning into our lives.”

Reconnecting with old friends is not the only solution to combat post-restriction loneliness. “Try to arrange meaningful face-to-face connections with real people where you can talk at a level somewhat deeper than small talk,” Breathnach says.

“Many hobby groups and classes have started back again and while it can be nerve-wracking to join one at the beginning, the chances are most people in the group are feeling as nervous as you might be.” Volunteering is another option, she suggests.

For single people, trying to meet someone new during the pandemic was particularly challenging, personal coach and relationship expert Melody Chadamoyo explains. Restrictions have been lifted now but some singletons are out of practice with dating, and can find it hard to know where to start, especially if they aren’t so keen on online dating.

Joining hiking groups, choirs, gyms and volunteering are just some ways to meet people, Chadamoyo suggests, but “tell your friends” is the one that many people forget. “Chances are your friends will know someone who is suitable for you, that is not in your circle.”

Having a partner doesn’t determine whether someone is lonely or not, Chadamoyo says. “There are many people who feel lonely in their relationships. Finding like-minded people and doing things you enjoy will help take the loneliness away.”

Work-life balance

The ability to work remotely has been a welcome development for most employees, but it has blurred the boundaries between work and home life.

“While [remote working] can bring huge advantages such as not having to commute and having more time to put on a wash… it can also lead to the risk of feeling like we’re ‘always on’,” says Breathnach.

“It can be so easy to get into the habit of having the laptop or phone on and keeping an eye on emails or MS Teams messages, even while watching TV… We can fall into a habit of using work to avoid relationship issues,” and find it “hard to switch off and let go when we are at a family event or on holiday”.

There are consequences of such a poor work-life balance, she says. “If work becomes something obsessive and is our main focus, then of course everything else in our life will suffer. Not only will we be at risk of becoming disconnected with our friends and family, but also we will be left with no time for extra-curricular activities or hobbies.

“Most importantly our mental and physical health can suffer. We can forget our worth, and our identity can suffer as we can find it hard to remember what defines us as a person outside of work. We may be at risk of exercising less, and we might lose touch with those we care about so much that meeting up with them can bring up anxiety and self-consciousness as we forget how to connect with and talk to people about things that aren’t related to work.”

Breathnach suggests “having a separate space for our work stuff”, “wearing different work clothes when we are actually working”, “using the time that we used to commute to go for a walk or a run” and exploring “what is unconsciously driving our need to ‘work more’ – are we looking for external validation?”

“If we improve our work-life balance, we will lower our stress levels, improve our mental and physical health and our family and friends will also benefit from having our full presence rather than one eye on the phone when we are with them,” she says.

Even though we may feel a pressure to be “always on” or an expectation to be always available, employees are legally protected from work encroaching on their home life. Sending emails outside of normal working hours is potentially in breach of the Organisation of Working Time Act, says employment law solicitor Richard Grogan if it is not clearly indicated that there is no expectation of a response.

But when you have a workplace culture that accepts working beyond normal hours, it can be difficult to seek change on your own without going down the legal route. “The legal, accounting, IT, financial sector... it’s an endemic problem,” Grogan says.

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family