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Hindsight 2020: Curbing the Desire to Stress Eat and Drink

Updated: Jan 14

- Teresa Jacobson, DBH, LPCC-S, NCC

June 30, 2021

It might not come as a surprise that research is showing a sharp rise in the frequency and quantity of emotional eating and drinking during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The prevalence of anxiety and depression among adults and youth is also increasing. Suicidal ideation is rising as well. Mental Health America (2021) reported that 37% of the 1.5 million survey respondents reported having thoughts of suicide “more than half or nearly every day of September 2020.”

Rise of Unhealthy Habits

With the increase in distress, some have turned to unhealthy amounts of alcohol and excessive eating.

The RAND Corporation recently reported American’s alcohol consumption rose in every age group, with women having the heaviest increases, at 41% (Pollard, Tucker, & Green, 2020). Another study reported drinking doubled among parents with young children.

Hospitals have seen a rise in admissions for liver cirrhosis and failure caused by alcoholism. Those who reach for alcohol might do so to relax when stressed. But the fact is despite alcohol’s “temporary calming properties”, it can actually increase symptoms of distress (Pattani, 2021).

Besides distress, negative impacts of drinking include hangovers, blackouts, impulsive and risky decisions, liver disease, alcohol-induced cardiovascular diseases, and some cancers (Pattani, 2021). Other health effects of even drinking moderately can result in: (a) disrupted sleep, (b) digestive issues, (c) memory problems, (d) increased anxiety, (e) depression, (f) irritability, and (g) disagreements and conflicts with loved ones” (Raypole, 2020).

So Many Emotions

In addition to the physiological symptoms one might experience, mental health symptoms may actually worsen with alcohol use. “While potentially effective in the shorter-term, self-medication is typically seen as an avoidance coping strategy, which may paradoxically maintain or even increase distress in the longer term” (Rodriguez, Litt, & Stewart, 2020). “This type of coping-related drinking is also associated with risk for development of alcohol-related problems.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it has also been reported that 61% of U.S. adults experienced undesired weight changes due to an increase in emotional eating (Drillinger, 2021).

Before the pandemic, about 43% of the United States population were considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Among those who reported undesired weight gain during the pandemic, the average gain was 29 pounds (Advisory Board, 2021).

Feelings of stress, boredom, loneliness, sadness, fear, or anxiety may have led to eating even when we weren’t really hungry. Brigham Health (2021) explains:

Emotional eating differs from occasionally using food as a reward or remedy. Instead, eating food becomes a primary coping mechanism to deal with emotions. It can be hard to know when hunger is physical or emotional. Stress is also strongly linked to emotional eating. Short-term stress can reduce appetite. On the other hand, continued stress increases cortisol levels in our body. Cortisol is a hormone and when the body releases it in response to stress, this can increase appetite and the motivation to eat.

Generally, people with prolonged stress turn to foods high in sugar and fat. Eating these kinds of foods activates dopamine, the “reward” neurotransmitter. Foods high in sugar and fat make you feel better in the moment and they are referred to as “comfort foods” because they appear to counteract stress.

So how do we curb our new habits?

Consider these tips to alter unhealthy habits:

  • Become aware of your eating and/or drinking patterns. Listen to your body and eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water. Try to avoid skipping meals or binging on alcohol or food.

  • Plan ahead and self-reflect. Rather than being self-critical, be compassionate with yourself, and log what you are eating and drinking to understand your urges and cravings.

  • Be present, mindful. Remove distractions and focus on sensorial properties of what you eat or drink (smell, taste, texture).

  • Cope with triggers you can’t avoid and remind yourself why you are trying to make changes. Carrying reminders in your wallet or on your phone can be helpful.

-- Talk through your challenges with someone you trust

-- Distract yourself with a healthy, alternative activity

-- Challenge the thought that drives the desire to eat or drink

-- Ride it out without giving in, keep in mind the urge/feeling will come and go like an ocean wave

-- Leave high risk situations quickly and gracefully, or plan your escape in advance

  • Monitor your overall health. Continue asking yourself: am I managing stress in a healthy way? Am I taking time to help myself engage in healthy activities to relax, and physical activities to help me feel happy?

  • Get a healthy amount of sleep. Over-eating and alcohol consumption can both impact sleep.

  • Keep a daily routine. Include in your routine sleep, physical activity, methods of socializing, and three meals and only healthy snacks each day.

Keep in mind that help is available - you don't have to take this journey alone. There is no shame in asking for extra help during this very challenging time.

Please see the diagram below for information about standard drink sizes. Each image portrayed above represents one U.S. standard drink.

Recommendations from National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism include drinking no more than 1 standard drink for women or 2 standard drinks for men daily. Binge drinking typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men in about 2 hours. Heavy drinking is defined as: more than 4 drinks per day or 14 per week for men; for women, more than 3 drinks on any day or more than 7 drinks per week.

It can feel daunting to embark on healthier habits when so many unhealthy ones can feel engrained. You don't have to go it alone.


Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio and Kentucky adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth/Video visits. A strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor, with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached by emailing, calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting



Alcohol Use Screener

Herrera, Y.M. (2020). Managing stress and emotional eating during COVID-19. Bringham Health Hub

Mental Health America (2020). The state of mental health in America. Mental Health America.

NIAAA (2021). What are the different drinking levels. Rethinking Drinking, National Institute on

Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved from

Pattani, A. (2021, June 9). Women now drink as much as men – not so much for pleasure, but to cope.

Pollard, M.S., Tucker, J.S., and Green, H. D. (2020). Changes in adult alcohol use and consequences

during the COVID-19 pandemic in the US Doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.22942

Raypole, C. (2020, October 19). Thinking of ditching alcohol? How to make a plan that works for you.

Rodrigez, L.M., Litt, D.M. and Stewart, S.H. (2020). Drinking to cope with the pandemic: The unique

associations of COVID-19 related perceived threat and psychological distress to drinking

behaviors in American men and women. Doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2020.106532 Retrieved from


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