If the six Democratic debates (hey, wine cave!) hadn’t tipped you off, 2020 is a presidential election year. Americans are staring down a packed schedule of primaries, conventions and even more debates leading up to Election Day on Nov. 3, and people are already getting stressed out.
According to 2019’s Stress in America poll conducted by the American Psychological Association, 56% of adult Americans said the upcoming election is a stressor. That’s a slight uptick from 2016, when 52% said it caused stress.
With that stress comes stress eating. During the last presidential election, food tracking app Lose It! recorded 3.6% more calories consumed on Election Day than on a regular Tuesday, and a couple of weeks after the election, The Boston Globe dubbed the phenomenon of post-election weight gain the “Trump 10.” And in November 2018, during the midterm elections, YouGov polled people and discovered Democrats were 50% more likely than Republicans to say they’re “eating their feelings” because of election stress.
Stress eating, or emotional eating, is widespread in the U.S. The American Psychological Association reported 38% of adults said “they have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress.” Almost half of these adults said they engaged in overeating weekly or more often. One-third said the reason for the overconsumption stemmed from distracting themselves from stress.
“Election seasons tend to be times of high uncertainty and risk,” Jen Bateman, a clinical psychologist specializing in weight management and stress eating, told HuffPost. “From an evolutionary perspective, humans have found managing risk a mixed emotion to deal with ― necessary to forge forwards but potentially anxiety provoking.”
So what can people do to manage election-related emotional eating over the next 10 months?
“When there are things and events that we don’t have much control over, we often turn to things like emotional eating,” Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist and author of the new book “Hanger Management,” told HuffPost. “Focus on things you can control versus things you can’t. But a little bit of stress eating isn’t a bad thing. A repeated pattern of it can cause problems, though.”
“[Mandarins] help with sweet cravings, are low in calories, and also the smell of citrus is calming.”
Triggers such as people, places and election news can lead to eating foods laced with sugar and high fat content. Bateman wants people to recognize their triggers ― “Sometimes, the traits of particular people trigger us, because they remind us of unresolved emotions and conflict from relationships in our past” ― and know that they don’t have to follow their impulses.
“Even if the urge is strong and it feels like you have no choice, in the same way an urge to scratch an itch feels very powerful, you do [have a choice],” she said. “You can resist and the urge will pass. But if you feel your power of choice has gone, then it’s likely you need extra emotional support to overcome your triggers, so do seek out the help of a psychologist or other health professional.”
For those who do become emotionally triggered, Bateman suggested they seek out at least 20 minutes of “me time” a day and amuse themselves with activities like listening to a podcast, calling a friend or reading a book. “When the food is calling you, do one, two or three of these before eating. This helps create a gap between the brain’s instruction to eat and the actual act of eating and builds the muscle that stress eating is a pattern that can be broken.”
Albers said in order to cope, try to calm your body with yoga or deep breathing, and that talking to like-minded people can help.
When the news cycle (and your stress level) becomes too much, Albers and Bateman suggested means to mitigate the madness. “Be sure to be strategic about how and when you access media,” Albers said. “For example, you may not want to start your day with it. It can set a negative or anxious tone for the whole day. Reading political coverage may be easier and less triggering to read on your phone than watch on TV. You can easily scroll by something that may be hard to read or make you overly anxious.”
Bateman suggested putting a time limit on reading the news. “15 minutes in the midmorning and again in the early evening could be one place to start,” she said.
However, if you do get anxious and as a result desire fatty foods, maybe avoid the mac and cheese and turn to the kinds of foods that have destressing qualities. Albers recommended eating mandarins. “They help with sweet cravings, are low in calories, and also the smell of citrus is calming. Rather than reaching for comfort foods, foods that are filling and help regulate your blood sugar are key, like fiber and protein-based foods.” Nuts, spinach, salmon, dark chocolate, blueberries, milk and chamomile tea are also good for relieving stress. But when in doubt, Albers said “eating mindfully is the antidote to stress eating.”
One thing people should not do when they’re stressed is avoid food altogether. According to the same APA survey, 30% of adults reported “skipping a meal due to stress,” which can cause sluggishness and irritability. But for those who do eat when stressed, Bateman said: “We’re more likely to grab a quick snack food and not give ourselves the time for a proper nourishing meal. We are then more likely to graze throughout the day and eat more.”
The next year is bound to be a roller coaster ride, but we shouldn’t forget to prioritize our emotional and physical well-being.
“Having social time and connection can help us plug in to what is most important to us ― values of relationships with family and friends that remain constant for us, whatever the change and flux of the news,” Bateman said.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.