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Food, Fear, and COVID-19

Food, Fear, and COVID-19

Has isolation changed your relationship with food?

There have been a lot of fat memes circulating on social media since shelter-in-place orders have taken effect. They fall into the offensive category for me, but I would like to focus on the source rather than the symptom, by writing about the connection between isolation, fear, and our relationship with food.

Cardiologist, Dean Ornish, says in his book, Love and Survival, “Our health is influenced by how well we are loved and how well we love.” We have a primal need to be seen, to be heard, to love, and to be loved. People who feel lonely, depressed, and isolated are up to ten times more likely to get sick and die prematurely. Our death toll is rising, and not only from the coronavirus. I am sure I am not the only person who has lost a loved one recently, most likely from a broken heart. Our life force is love. It’s our social glue; our survival depends on it.

Evolutionist Dobzhansky said that survival of the fittest is what perpetuates existence. In mammals, the fittest may also be the gentlest, because survival often requires mutual help and cooperation. Creationists believe this too: we were never meant to be alone and isolated. This, for me, was profoundly reinforced when Stephen Porges, neurobiologist, released his 2011 book, The Polyvagal Theory, describing the neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. This theory is one of the most important discoveries in the last 50 years explaining how the vagus nerve is a superhighway of information connecting our body, brain, and heart. It explained in scientific terms what psychologists intuitively experience and observe in their patients. Our social engagement system allows us to use our connections with others to co-regulate our physiological states, promoting our physical and mental health.

Prior to this lockdown, I was worried about the effects of technology on our face-to-face, heart-to-heart connections with other people. I now fear this pandemic is likely to create a perfect storm. When we are socially engaged and communicating face-to-face, we pass information to each other about our emotional states with micro movements of facial muscles. In turn, through neuroception, a Porges-coined term, we receive information from these gestures through a feedback loop regarding the state of our safety. Our social engagements help us to relax and feel connected. Through our increasing reliance on texts, emails, Zoom or FaceTime, our facial expressions have become underused and distorted. The research is not out yet, but I believe facial co-regulation is not translated well over video feed. Also, the energy that is exchanged heart-to-heart is also missing. As a therapist, moving to 100% telehealth has caused fatigue and agitation. Although studies have shown telehealth to be “as effective” as in person meetings, I fear our humanity will suffer.

Another life force that our survival depends upon is food. Lack of food creates an insecurity in us that can override our sensibilities. This was shown to be true many years ago in the famous Minnesota Starvation study. Our recent hoarding behavior bore glimpses of this insanity. The loss of jobs has created a greater need for food bank services; food insecurity is real for many, and for others it is perceived. Research has shown that the incidence of eating disorders rises with greater food insecurity.

Uncertainty of our future, isolation, and the transfer of human contacts to the electronic realm have all contributed to our state of fear and dysregulation.

Disordered eating has long been associated with states of dysregulation. Food calms, soothes, and shifts our nervous system into the parasympathetic state of rest and digest. What we now speculate is that eating can mimic and replace relationships. As an eating disorder therapist, I have heard claims from spouses that their partner was having an affair with food, and from patients who claim to pass up social events for a “date with a binge.” It turns out that eating behavior mimics social behaviors in that it uses the same neural pathways to regulate our physiological state. The social engagement system includes facial expressions, vocalizations, and gestures whereas eating behaviors include chewing, sucking, and swallowing. Both regulate the nervous system.

Disordered eating occurs when, in the attempt to feel safe in the absence of perceived safety, we supplement or replace social behavior with an attachment to food.
In times of fear and isolation, the love of food easily replaces the intimacy we crave from others.

As the world starts to slowly open for business again, I fear some repercussions may have emerged from our isolation. What we find with eating disorders is that those who engage in them become increasingly isolated. There are lots of reinforcers for that isolation such as the judgement from our weight-obsessed society when our eating behavior begins to reflect in our body size. What and how much we eat seems to be everyone else’s business. Shame drives us to secret spaces again, and we repeat the cycle of turning to food for comfort. A lesson here is that people rarely choose to engage in these unhealthy behaviors; they are just trying to figure out how to survive and feel better. Finding a place of safety and connection is difficult, but it is vital that we push forward and connect again, face-to-ace and heart-to-heart when we are again able. In short, fear will continue to wreak havoc on our nervous system, and love appears to be our only way out.


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