What COVID Can Teach Us About Stress Management
Different coping styles tell us a lot about healthy eating.
Posted March 15, 2023 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- The first year of COVID caused some people to turn to junk food to cope with the stress.
- Inability to handle stress is linked to low self-efficacy.
- Rewriting a negative internal dialogue can lead to more successful management of stress and stress-related eating.
Now that COVID is somewhat behind us, we have some space to stop and reflect. We can remember the days when masks were mandatory, lockdowns were frequent, and many businesses were shutting down (except, of course, hospitals).
Some of us used the time to down-regulate our lives, taking advantage of a less hectic lifestyle. Others’ lives became even more hectic as schools closed, and daycare was a non-starter. Job insecurity became a huge issue. Supply chains were questionable. Not to mention the loss of loved ones and acquaintances.
And we had no idea when things were going to improve, at least until a vaccine became widely available. That first year was quite a challenge, and there was nowhere to go. It was a worldwide health threat.
COVID Anxiety and the Consumption of Junk Foods
A couple of studies presented in a 2022 research paper (Juad and Lunardo) looked at anxiety during 2020 in adults aged 18-35 in the United Kingdom and France. Their background research showed that this age group tended to struggle more with anxiety than older adults, showing a greater tendency to feel isolated, overwhelmed, and helpless.
This particular study decided to look at the uptick in eating junk foods (high-calorie, processed foods) and sugary drinks as a coping strategy for pandemic anxiety. Juad and Lunardo also found that there were specific coping strategies used by some individuals that did not lead to continued states of anxiety and turning to compensatory eating practices.
They discovered that feelings of helplessness caused many individuals to have a lower acceptance of the situation. Helplessness indicates a general feeling of not having the ability to find a way to cope with the situation. This is known as low self-efficacy.
Individuals who felt helpless tended to eat more junk food (often accompanied by weight gain) during the first year of the pandemic. On the other hand, those who were able to accept the situation were then able to develop positive coping strategies. As a result, they did not turn to junk food as a coping strategy.
Anxiety and Self-Efficacy
Other research has explored the connection between helplessness and feelings of low-self efficacy. Low self-efficacy can lead to ignoring or rejecting positive coping strategies that a person does not feel capable of performing. The opposite would be self-efficacy, or a person’s belief in their ability to find and use coping strategies to achieve a goal or complete a task.
These same concepts are evident when designing behavior change interventions that promote a healthy eating style compatible with maintaining a healthy weight.
What do they have in common? Both have to do with conquering the negativity that comes with stress that can leave a person stuck in an unproductive belief system. Without self-efficacy on board, it is easy to stay focused on the negative, use negative self-talk, and stay in black-and-white thinking. These patterns can lead a person to think that changing the situation is impossible.
The question is, can some interventions increase self-efficacy, and if so, how?
The Role of Stress Management
A study in 2022 (Carfora, Morandi, and Catellani) identified several techniques that had a positive effect on developing dietary self-efficacy. Self-monitoring, feedback on performance, review of behavioral goals, setting up a reward system, and social support all increased dietary self-efficacy.
The kicker was that stress management was consistently associated with self-efficacy across all analyses and came out as the strongest indicator.
This finding takes us right back to what was happening during COVID with regard to turning to unhealthy foods. Anxiety is a big part of stress. Jaud and Lunardo found a huge association between being able to handle the anxiety of an uncontrollable situation like the pandemic and the ability to make healthy food choices. That association points to the role of self-efficacy when handling the stress of the situation.
Getting back to the question of whether self-efficacy can be increased, it would appear that stress management plays a key role. Taking it a step further, what actions can be taken to respond to stress that will lower its effect on us?
As Jaud and Lunardo indicated, the ability to accept the situation could then serve as the basis for developing coping strategies leading to the ability to maintain healthy eating during the pandemic.
Other research has supported several techniques used to reduce stress and develop coping strategies when designing healthy eating interventions. These techniques have been proven effective time and again. These strategies can be applied to the successful management of stress during challenging times, such as the pandemic, as well as using behavior change interventions in healthy eating or weight-loss programs.
- Increase awareness of the situation. What is going on? How is it possible to respond to that reality with acceptance, action, and positivity?
- Realize that our brains naturally tend to focus on the negative. Negativity will cause us to over-focus on perceived threats, which can then feel overwhelming.
- Catch and identify negativity and then rewrite the thought. In terms of eating, it can sound like, “Focusing on healthy eating right now is just too hard,” or “I just don’t have the ability to change my eating habits” (indicating helplessness and low self-efficacy). The rewrite could sound like, “I know things are challenging right now, but I can find ways to do the best I can to stay focused on my health” (indicating acceptance and feeling capable of executing healthy solutions).
- Learn to identify the all-or-nothing thinking that frequently accompanies negativity and replace it with opening up to creative solutions.
Did these strategies work for some of the young people in the Jaud and Lunardo study? It appears that those with higher self-efficacy and the ability to cope with stress were able to use these strategies and others to help them focus on healthy eating during the pandemic. In addition, we can use the connection between stress and self-efficacy as we develop interventions, specifically in programs designed to promote healthy eating and, potentially, weight loss.
The point: Stress management is a significant part of controlling food intake.
Jaud, D.A., and Lunardo, R. (2022). Serial coping to anxiety under a pandemic and subsequent regulation of vice food and beverage consumption among young adults. Journal of Consumer Affairs. 56:237-256.
Carfora, V., Morandi, M. and Catellani, P. (2022). The Effect of Message Framing in Promoting the Mediterranean Diet: The Moderating Role of Self-Efficacy. Foods. 11:1454.