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Dealing with pandemic weight gain? Here’s how to move forward in a positive way

19 July, 2021

Experiencing post-lockdown body image issues? In part four of our Covid mental health series, we look at how to deal with pandemic weight gain in a sensible and self-loving way...

pile of clothes on the floor because nothing fits

‘When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me.’ Oscar Wilde

After an incredibly tough year, many of us are looking forward to everything that post-pandemic life brings, from socialising to dating to reconnecting with work colleagues. However, others feel anxious at the idea of returning to the world again. And for some, this anxiety is related to the feeling that when they look in the mirror, they no longer see the same person that they did before the pandemic.

In fact, weight gain has been a very natural side effect of a year where many of us had a lot more time on our hands but a lot less activities to take part in. Others of us found ourselves with much less time for self-care after the additional demands of balancing working from home with homeschooling. For instance, a February 2021 study by The Harris Poll found that 42% of adults gained more weight than intended during the pandemic, with the average increase being 29 pounds. Another study carried out by the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana on almost 8,000 adults across the globe (including in Britain), found that over 25% of people had gained weight during lockdown. What’s more, disordered eating spiked during the pandemic as well.

But while it can be comforting to know that you are not alone in this, facing changes in your body can still be very painful. It can be difficult to feel that you don’t recognise yourself anymore, or find that your favourite clothes no longer fit you. And in our highly image conscious society — where we’re constantly bombarded with messages about appearance and impossible body standards are often portrayed as the norm — it’s understandable if your confidence has taken a hit due to weight gain. It is also understandable if you are dealing with feelings of guilt, shame, rage, anxiety or embarrassment as a result, or if you are afraid that others will judge you. And while worries about weight are often stereotyped as being an issue that affects women, recent research by the charity CALM found that 58% of surveyed men said that the pandemic had negatively affected how they felt about their body.

But thankfully, there are various approaches to dealing with post-pandemic weight gain (and any related mental health effects) in a sensible and self-loving way. Here are six steps that you can take to start with:

1. Begin by being compassionate with yourself

We have all been through a collective trauma and each of us had to develop our own coping strategies as a result. For some, it might have been more time spent on gaming or social media, while others might have absorbed themselves in a new relationship. And for many, food was an easily accessible source of comfort (or even just something to look forward to in an otherwise uneventful day). During a period when we were cut off from normal activities like socialising, hobbies, the gym, family time and the routine of commuting to work, it is understandable that snacking, treats and even alcohol became a reliable way to self-soothe.

So if you have gained more weight than you would like as a result, then it’s really important to start by being kind to yourself. Remember that you were coping with an unprecedented global crisis as best as you could — and perhaps without much of a support network. In fact, beating yourself up about weight gain is counter-productive, as it will most likely trigger more uncomfortable emotions and cause you to overeat all the more. So start by acknowledging that your body has carried you through a really hard time and if you’d like to make changes, try to do it in a gentle way. In the meantime make sure you have some clothes that fit, even if it means buying a few items in a larger size than you would usually wear. That way you will feel more confident wearing 'outside' clothes again as you start to re-enter the world again.

And remember, many of us have been on social media more than ever these past 12 months, meaning that we have been exposed to heavily filtered images of perfect bodies. As well as this, unachievable beauty ideals shown in ad campaigns by the diet industry can also have an impact on self-esteem, creating the sense that our bodies somehow need to be ‘fixed’. So aim to be aware of how these messages are affecting you and try not to compare yourself with others around you — body comparisons can really have a negative impact on how we perceive our own bodies.

2. Pay attention to your emotional relationship with food

It’s possible that you didn’t have any issues with eating before the pandemic started and that the root cause of your weight increase was straightforward pandemic boredom (or even tension around food resulting from the scarcity of it at the beginning of lockdown). But it’s also possible that you might already have had existing patterns in this area, perhaps even rooted in childhood.

For instance, many children eat to comfort themselves when there are stresses at home, or when they feel ignored, alone or unnurtured. This is known as ‘emotional eating’ and is a pattern of trying to dull or numb difficult feelings with food. It’s also a pattern that can continue long into adulthood. In the words of psychotherapist Julie M. Simon, author of When Food Is Comfort: Nurture Yourself Mindfully, Rewire Your Brain and End Emotional Eating, people with this issue ‘grow up with an emotionally starved inner child running our lives.’

One big sign of emotional eating is that you eat even when you’re not hungry. Another is eating to cope with painful emotions such as sadness, anxiety, guilt, shame, fear, anger, loneliness or emptiness. And of course, the pandemic could have triggered these emotions and behaviours all over again. That’s why paying attention to when, why and what you eat each day can be very helpful in developing self-awareness around your relationship with food.

3. Become aware of your eating triggers

Related to the above, it is also important to recognise the specific triggers that cause you to raid the fridge. Do you tend to comfort eat when you’re feeling lonely, fearful or angry, for instance, after watching a negative news report about the pandemic? Or after being on social media or watching Love Island? If you don’t see any links, you could try keeping a food diary to see if this highlights patterns in what tends to happen just before you eat.

If so, try to commit to dealing with those emotions in alternative ways. This could include keeping a journal for venting, going for a walk to let off steam or texting a friend for support. Or you could try using some ideas from completing the stress cycle. You could also aim to stock up on nutritious food and cut down on the amount of comfort food that you buy, to remove the temptation to turn to food to change how you feel.

4. Make a realistic health and fitness plan

It’s okay to want to look good but that said, it’s also important to go easy on yourself by focusing on health and fitness, rather than on achieving a certain type of appearance. After all, it is possible that your body is still healthy and you may just be dealing with high levels of self-criticism.

However, if you feel that your weight gain has become unhealthy, then aim to make a constructive and realistic plan for how to move forward. This could include speaking to your GP, especially if you have any underlying health conditions. It could also include consulting a dietitian or doing internet research on the best and safest eating plans for your age, body type and gender.

This doesn’t mean you can never indulge yourself and it definitely doesn’t mean dieting (which rarely works long term anyway) — it just means developing more mindful habits in relation to food. Restricting certain foods or food groups usually ends up backfiring as you're more likely to become preoccupied with them then and then overeat them if they're 'forbidden'. Establishing a regular eating pattern, having a rough plan of what you will eat and when, and practicing eating mindfully can help. You might also want to try out ‘intuitive eating’, which helps you to develop a better relationship with food by tuning into signals from your body, honouring your hunger and practicing self-kindness.

You might also want to start a gentle exercise regime a few times a week. And if you are still social distancing, then remember that you don’t have to hit the gym and could try alternatives like running, cycling or online exercise classes. Also, going out into nature is a great way of getting your body moving in an enjoyable way, rather than focusing on how you look.

5. Get expert support from a therapist

If you feel that you need help with issues related to body image, eating patterns and emotional coping, then a trained therapist can make a big difference. A therapist can help you to get to the bottom of why the pandemic triggered overeating for you, then work with you in developing strategies for managing this and any impact on your self-confidence.

It may also be the case that your eating issues run deeper than pandemic weight gain, for instance, you could be dealing with a more serious issue such as binge eating or bulimia. Signs of this can include rapid up and down weight changes, feeling out of control around eating, stashing or hiding food, binging sessions, vomiting, taking laxatives and obsessive weighing. If you show any of these signs, then it’s important that you seek help as soon as possible, both from your GP and a therapist.

And if you’re trying to decide which type of therapy would be best for you, then various approaches have been shown to be effective with eating issues. For instance, CBT can help you to change your mindset and behaviours around food, while DBT can support you in managing your emotions more effectively (and in turn, managing emotional eating patterns). EMDR therapy can help you to break the association between eating and feeling good, as well as processing any underlying traumas that have been causing you to overeat. Other therapies that can help you to develop a healthier relationship with food include schema, psychodynamic, CFT, ACT and mindfulness. Also, bear in mind that if you are still social distancing, then online therapy is a great option.

6. Connect to a motivating community

For many people, the lockdown experience was a highly isolating one, so you might find that engaging with a support community is healing and mood-boosting in itself.

A good first step could be to join an activities club in your area, such as running, hiking or cycling. By making a new group of friends who share your health goals, you will have a set of accountability partners to cheer on all of your victories, both big and small.

It’s also a good idea to be mindful of who you are following on social media or spending time with in real life. Engaging with people who are ‘body positive’ — in other words, accepting and non-judgmental of their own and other people's bodies — can really help (and we even have the science to prove it).

Most importantly, remember that changing habits takes time, patience and consistency. It can be hard to shift them at first, so go easy on yourself if you slip up and have the odd comfort eating session. The best approach is to take each day at a time and to aim for small steps that you’ll be able to sustain over time.

And while it might seem that everyone else apart from you is excited about rejoining the world again, that truly isn’t the case. Many people are grappling with the mental health fallout of the pandemic right now, so you are not alone if you’re dealing with anxiety around post-Covid socialising or returning to the workplace. Just be gentle with yourself and acknowledge that you have been through an awful lot. If you’ve developed some less healthy habits this past year, then remember that those habits were just your way of coping with a massive global crisis. However, slowly but surely, you can aim to replace them with choices that will serve you much better in the future.

Are you dealing with issues related to eating, body image or post-lockdown mental health? Find online or in-person support from a world-class MTA therapist.

Please bear in mind that none of the above information is intended to replace medical advice. If you are feeling concerned about any weight issues, then it is best to see your GP.

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