Wondering how to stop COVID binge-eating/drinking/shopping?

Something a client said recently struck me, “First I just started picking when I was bored. Now I can't go 20 minutes without getting something from the fridge or cupboard!” 


When the news of the pandemic dawned, we locked ourselves at home, and turned to all of our traditional comforts; food, television, booze, net surfing, and online shopping, to name the big ones.

We're still not quite out of the woods yet. Some say we never will be. So, it would be normal to still need those comforts. In fact, it's possible you might feel troubled again, at the turning of the anniversary of COVID-19 lockdown. Funny things happen at anniversaries.

But, as we start to think about coming out of lockdown, some of us are worrying about mixing again, going back to 'normal', and being seen. So, now is the time to start working out how to stop your COVID-19 coping strategies. There is another way to feel better.

1. Psych tricks

These are practical behaviour modifications that can help you unlock unhelpful associations and make a mind shift.

  • Change your habits and routines. Instead of having coffee and chocolate in the morning, go for a walk. Instead of reaching for snacks, organise pre-prepared food. As an alternative to the nightly glass of wine, have a bath with a meditation on compassion. You're probably more tired than you realise.
  • Dance when you feel trapped.
  • Try eating only when hungry.
  • Distract yourself by getting absorbed in other things.
  • Try not to have the temptation around by restricting what you buy.
  • Have smaller plates/glasses/watching/surfing session times.
  • Ping yourself with an elastic band on your wrist when you binge.

These can work to some extent, as a first step. But you might quickly find new ingenious ways to fit in and find your comforts.

2. Why do you need comfort?

If those tricks don't work, this means the comfort habit is caused by emotion. This takes a little more understanding to break. So, start asking why you're doing what you do. What are the emotions, feelings, thoughts and experiences you're having, which lead to you zoning out and retreating into comfort behaviour?

It could come down to a few universal emotions:

  • Boredom and frustration. Boredom with your own company. Frustration that you can't do all the things you want to. I remember one period of literally feeling like my body was really, really struggling, cooped up in the same building over and over again. Can you relate?
  • Fear, anxiety or worry. Feeling scared that you might lose your business or job. Anxiety every time you go out. Worry that you might never get where you need to in life, with this year as a setback. I've particularly heard fears of being unfulfilled in a relationship, whether single or in a relationship.
  • Grief, loss and sadness. Left on your own, everything you have ever grieved for may have come to the surface. You may have felt lonely and hopeless. You may have missed people you haven't thought about in years, and grieved for the company you felt you have never had, and wanted. We need each other to co-regulate. So, you may have really grieved the loss of this too.
  • Trauma. Not to mention the trauma of people actually dying, whether we've seen that first hand or not. Past trauma is also something that's waiting to be triggered any time anything is vaguely replicated. So, you may have re-experienced past trauma feelings of abandonment, neglect or abuse.

What have I left out? What have you felt during this last year, that may have meant you needed comfort?

3. Find other ways to cope 

This pandemic has hit us hard. As British people, many of us don't like to admit when something stresses us out. So, instead of expressing ourselves and learning to regulate our emotions, we reach for the substances that make us appear to be better, and that do actually make us feel better, momentarily.

But the pandemic affected us all. If not directly through COVID-19 trauma and grief, then through the fallout of being locked up in our homes. Our nervous systems have been affected, whether we like it or not.

The good news is there are ways to manage those effects, without turning to something outside ourselves:

  • Understand what's going on in your nervous system.
  • Make time for exercises that regulate your nervous system
  • Uncover what thoughts and beliefs are making you turn to your comforts, and challenge them
  • Get in touch with the emotion underneath, and allow them to tell you what you really need. There are no bad emotions. Your emotions always have something to tell you. So, listen.
  • Do what makes you feel good internally, in other ways.

Personally, I quickly realised that worrying about my business was what was stopping me from doing anything productive. So, I gave myself a break to calm my nervous system down. I focussed quite heavily on self-compassion. I, too, was affected by this dreadful, traumatic event. First I had to let it be OK that I had been affected.

I'm not going to lie, some of the feelings I had to face were deep and painful. But I got through the surfacing of them without abusing myself. That's a huge win. The compassion and understanding helped every time. I read, listened to and watched resources on how to calm down, and be kind to myself. This is what I'd recommend. There's a lot of free help out there.

One of the saving graces for me has been the people I reached out to. I know many people have realised through this pandemic who they are close to, and who they are not. I would encourage you to persist with the people who nourish you and your life. It's these people who have given my life meaning and fulfilment in lockdown. These people will support you in finding compassion for yourself.

The honest truth is that stopping comfort behaviour may be a gradual process. But, the more a sense of self-compassion you have, the less you will want to disengage or treat yourself badly. In the words of one of my clients:

"Is there something else I would really rather be doing instead?"

I'll be back next week to talk more about post-pandemic stress and self-soothing. Watch out for next week's article!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bristol, Somerset, BS4 2DS
Written by Shelley Treacher, Therapy for anxiety, depression & relationship difficulties.
Bristol, Somerset, BS4 2DS

Shelley Treacher BACP Accred helps individuals and runs groups on overcoming loneliness, comfort eating, and finding engaged love. Having learnt to manage comfort eating and overcome loneliness, to the point of finding love, Shelley now empowers people from around the World, with compassion, depth of knowledge, & a touch of respectful humour.

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