Editor’s Note: We aren’t here to diagnose. If you’re experiencing any of the health-related habits we mention here, consult a trusted medical professional who can offer you support and a treatment plan to help you through.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has brought about some major adjustments in human behavior. While we prefer to spotlight positive side effects such as a greater focus on quality family time, we can’t ignore the fact that some unfortunate issues surfaced, too. From stress eating to “doomscrolling,” social isolation presents its fair share of challenges. We reached out to a few experts across the South for insight on five common and perhaps unhealthy COVID-related habits people have picked up during the pandemic and how to get back on track.
How to Reverse 5 Habits Picked Up During COVID
When the going gets tough, many people look to foods like mac and cheese or warm chocolate chip cookies rather than carrots and celery. “With increased stress, we often turn to food in an attempt to change the way we feel,” offers Kristi Edwards, co-founder and owner of 901 Nutrition in Memphis. “Certain nutrients in food have the ability to boost serotonin levels in the brain, producing a sense of calm or comfort.”
Turning to food for comfort isn’t a new concept, and it doesn’t always indicate a more serious problem. However, the pandemic has seen a surge in emotional eating based on boredom, anxiety and loneliness, which can be unhealthy. “While food can be a coping mechanism for stress, it doesn’t address the root cause or provide a long-term solution,” Kristi says. “Rather, it has a Band-Aid effect.”
With easy access to the refrigerator and pantry, quarantining or working from home can lead to mindless snacking — particularly if reducing your number of supermarket trips has you stocking up on more groceries than you’re used to. “With the kitchen so close by, it’s easy to grab a snack, take it back to your desk or table, and continue to work while eating,” Kristi explains.
How to reverse the habit:
To make more mindful choices, Kristi suggests separating where you eat from where you work. This sets the stage for an intuitive eating approach, which encourages focusing on the food on your plate, taking your time, and appreciating each bite you take. “While it’s not always possible to eliminate distractions and take your time eating,” says Kristi, “this practice has proved to provide multiple benefits, including decreased stress levels, improved digestion and absorption of nutrients.” Savoring your meal without distractions means you’re more present in tasting and experiencing what you’re putting into your body … which also means you’re more likely to pay attention to what you consume and stop eating when you’re full.
As a first step toward practicing mindful eating, Kristi suggests the following exercise: choose a food — it can be a bite, a snack, or a full meal — and create a positive space with minimal distraction. This includes turning off phone alerts! Sit at a table rather than your desk, couch or bed, and pause for a moment to let go of anything that’s weighing you down. Consider the food in front of you and where it came from, and use all of your senses. Though the exercise may not be possible every time you sit down for a meal, it will enhance your awareness, putting you more in tune with your body’s hunger cues. For long-term assistance, consulting a registered dietitian can be a helpful next step, as he or she can assess your lifestyle, consider the bigger picture, and offer information and healthy strategies for managing your stress from a nutritional standpoint.
An Increase in Drinking
When you’re working from home, it’s all too easy to pour a glass of wine before the workday ends. After all, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, right? As with stress eating, which is tough to avoid when you have around-the-clock access to your own kitchen, being close to your wine cache or liquor cabinet makes sipping afternoon cocktails an effortless afternoon go-to. In no time, it can become part of your daily routine.
Increased alcohol sales and a recent study done by the RAND Corporation research organization show that American adults have significantly increased their alcohol consumption during the pandemic. In fact, heavy drinking by women has increased by 41%. “When experiencing stress and anxiety, people tend to drink alcohol more often,” says Madera Beckham, founder of Sober Savvy Tribe in Nashville, a women-only online coaching platform. Madera adds that the rise in binge drinking and day drinking can be credited to stressors like home-schooling, work-from-home adjustments, boredom, COVID fears, isolation and oversaturation of the news. And while routine alcohol consumption may appear to offer temporary solace from the storm, its long-term effects can be far more damaging if it evolves into dependency.
How to reverse the habit:
If your alcohol intake has dramatically increased during the course of the pandemic, and you’re questioning whether or not you should be cutting back, you may want to take a closer look at your relationship with alcohol. “The first step to reversing the problem is through education or information,” says Madera. She also suggests group participation, even if it’s virtual, to connect with others experiencing similar challenges. “Several online programs such as mine offer educational emails about alcohol,” she explains, “and the programs are relatively inexpensive.” She also notes that group collaboration is highly effective in raising awareness and helping you feel less isolated and overwhelmed.
Being Too Sedentary
At this point, most of us have heard of the “COVID-15.” While the pandemic may have granted us more time for outdoor exercise, it also threw our daily routines for a loop — exercise included. “The pandemic turned our world upside down,” says Matt Crane, owner of Meta Fitness Studio in Mountain Brook, Alabama. “It takes us away from the people and things we know and love. We’re encouraged to stay home and stay away from others, leaving us inactive and, quite frankly, depressed. We replaced our normal routines like going to work, the grocery store and the gym, with Netflix binge-watching and bad eating habits. It’s a storm we weren’t prepared for, and it takes its toll on us physically and mentally. It’s a kick in the ass for us as a society and a reminder of how important fitness is to our overall health and well-being.”
How to reverse the habit:
So, how often should we be on our feet each day to stay healthy? We’re all different, so that’s tough to quantify. “Some say you need at least 30 minutes of exercise per day,” says Matt, “but that isn’t necessarily enough for some, or it may be too much for others. I recommend doing something every day (resistance training, cardiovascular work, yoga, Pilates, walking, jogging, or a combination of them) that gets you moving and active. That may be a vigorous 45-minute to one-hour workout for some, and it may be a light walk for others. The point is to get moving and try to improve gradually over time.”
If you’re looking for a starting point, Matt suggests making it official by writing down realistic goals and pledging your commitment to accomplishing them. From there, it’s all about accountability. Whether you choose a trainer or a friend to hold you to your word, it’s imperative to find someone who encourages and motivates you, and who will help you stay on track. “The key is to remember it’s a lifestyle and not a short-term fix,” Matt says. So, do what makes you comfortable each day, be it getting on a Peloton or doing a “couch to 5K” program. “Do what’s best for you — not for anyone else,” advises Matt. “We live in a society where we’re constantly made to feel that we should be and look a certain way. Be careful not to fall into that negative space that social media and others can put you in. Find your people — the ones who will encourage and support you to be your best you. Make the decision today to do whatever it takes to make it happen, and let’s go!”
Thanks to its convenience, online shopping is more and more commonplace — particularly as we endeavor to social distance and stay at home. With fewer outings on the agenda, we find ourselves perusing the internet for everything from groceries to retail to future travel.
As with many life-altering events, the pandemic has caused a shift in consumer spending habits. Sales in categories such as home improvement and technology have seen an understandable increase as we spend more time at home — both living and working. But senseless spending is also a real struggle for many people. Spending habits can easily be triggered by emotional upheaval and anxiety, which is precisely what COVID has caused. Many are succumbing to mindless shopping in the quest to find as much convenience and comfort as possible. “The problem is pretty old hat,” says Rob DeLessio, a financial advisor at Strategic Wealth Designers in Louisville. “We want instant gratification, and with the cyber world that we live in, that’s easy to achieve … You can get anything delivered to your door, from anywhere in the world, in just a few clicks.”
How to reverse the habit:
Young or old, the key to a better financial future is to save your money. And perhaps it will prevent spontaneous online shopping, too. Though he admits it may sound completely backward, Rob’s advice is to save first, then concentrate on bills. “Traditionally, people pay their bills, live their lives, then save whatever may be left,” he tells us. “Well, if you position some of your money to savings first, then live your life, there will be less money for ancillary spending, which will lead to spending less money. It force-feeds you to drop your overspending.”
He’s also quick to tout the benefits of teaching financial stability from early on. “It’s really about teaching our youth, and those who are currently in the working community, how not to fall into the traps that lie with overspending and high-interest debt; it’s a vicious cycle that can only be overcome if we get to it at the root.”
If you’ve never heard of doomscrolling, here’s the gist: when you get on your phone to check for political updates or recent COVID developments, and you crawl out from the internet rabbit hole an hour (and a dozen articles-worth of unfavorable news or social media posts) later, that’s “doomscrolling.” Also known as “doomsurfing,” the term was supposedly used on Twitter as far back as 2018, but seems to have gained in popularity as a reaction to COVID-19. When you doomscroll, you deep dive into an endless stream of conflict and negativity — and it takes a toll on your mental health.
In many ways, doomscrolling is similar to traffic slowing down near a car wreck. It’s not simply that people have to adjust to a new traffic pattern; it’s that they can’t stop watching. We’re drawn to the doom and gloom, and it’s easy to get lost in it. The trouble is that it can lead to both short-term and long-term anxiety and depression. “It reinforces that the world is a more dangerous place than it really is,” explains Tamara M. Perciful, a licensed clinical social worker in Atlanta. “The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the practice of doomscrolling, as we are all looking for answers. We think we’re educating ourselves, but in reality, it increases anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation … We keep scrolling and scrolling to feel better and find out answers, but we may feel worse after.”
Other short-term side effects of doomscrolling include sleep loss, memory impairment, concentration problems and spending less time in the real world, and the long-term effects are equally alarming. “We learn how to distract ourselves from our own problems,” cautions Tamara. “The brain gets used to being drawn to the negative, and this becomes a compulsion; it’s like a drug and can be addicting.”
How to reverse the habit:
What coping skills can we adapt to conquer the nonstop cycle of negativity? Tamara says the first step is admitting it’s a problem. Quitting cold turkey may be difficult, so she recommends beginning by limiting your screen time. Next, focus on positive stories and resist the urge to be distracted by those that mentally drain you. Lastly, she suggests deleting your social media apps. While this may seem like an extreme measure, it’s a necessity for some. It’s much easier to avoid the temptation if it isn’t in front of you each time you look at your mobile device.
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