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What Habits Did We Create In Responding To Stress?

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Brain Health Kuel Category Expert: Patricia Faust, MGS

This past year has really been a dandy! All of us, in one way or another, have had to adjust to an uncommon life during an uncommon time. What did you do to move past the fear and the stress?

Yes, you can blame stress for all of the bad habits you might have picked up during the pandemic. It has been estimated that there was an average of a 20-pound weight gain throughout 2020. Our stress response was out of control and we couldn’t self-soothe enough to feel better. Our inability to be with friends and family increased the stress threshold. What did we do? We ate comfort food to make us feel better. Comfort food is high-fat and sugary. (How much ice cream did you consume last year?). In the chronic stress stage, we are producing cortisol and cortisol increases appetite and may ramp up motivation, including the motivation to eat.  If you weren’t sleeping, you probably produced more ghrelin – the ‘hunger hormone’.

“A Finnish study that included over 5000 men and women showed that obesity was associated with stress-related eating in women but not in men!” 

Obesity And Stress:

Once these fat and sugar-filled foods are ingested, there seems to be a feedback effect that dampens stress-related responses and emotions. Because high-fat, sugary, and salty foods give us immediate relief, it becomes our default method of dealing with stressful emotions.There is one more disturbing finding in research on eating to overcome stress. There is a gender difference in stress-coping behavior, with women being more likely to turn to food and men to alcohol and smoking. A Finnish study that included over 5000 men and women showed that obesity was associated with stress-related eating in women but not in men!

Increase Of Alcohol Consumption:

“you never had any problems with drinking alcohol so why would this time be different?”

Let’s take a look at increases in drinking alcohol during these pandemic months. The news is disturbing over the increase of alcohol consumption during COVID-19. Used as another method for stress relief, alcohol is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is not uncommon to have a drink after a stressful day. A bit of alcohol seems to help us relax. This initial response to drinking can keep you coming back for more. Now it isn’t just one beer or one glass of wine. Now it takes three, four, or five drinks to give that relaxation feeling. But in this increase in drinking alcohol, we also increase many long-term problems. In numbing out from your problems, you keep pushing them down the road. You are not learning coping techniques to help you navigate highly stressful events in a healthy way.

You may shrug at this research. And you never had any problems with drinking alcohol so why would this time be different? You can become dependent on alcohol without even knowing it. Alcohol becomes central in your thoughts and in your life. Researchers from the RAND Corporation American Life Panel compared the number of days of any alcohol use and heavy drinking – defined as consuming five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women within a few hours – and the average number of drinks consumed in the last month before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.  A total of 1,540 adults with a mean age of 56.6 years were included in the study.

Study Results:

  • In adults aged 30 – 59 years, the frequency of alcohol consumption increased by 0.93 days, or by 19%, from baseline.
    • According to researchers, three out of four adults consumed alcohol an average of one day more per month compared with the baseline
  • Researchers also found that women experienced a significant increase in heavy drinking, representing a 41% increase from baseline.
  • Nearly one in ten women had increased alcohol-related problems regardless of how much they consumed.

Negative Consequences:

“By continually making good choices, you are retraining your brain”

Dr. Pollard, the sociologist at the RAND Corporation and professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, noted that “Our study shows that people drank more frequently, and for women, in particular, more heavily, and with more negative consequences, during the initial stages of COVID-19 compared to their own behaviors from a year earlier.”

So, what now?  Whether you experience stress eating or binge drinking, it is critical to learn better-coping skills. For stress or emotional eating, you must be mindful of what triggers you to eat and then be ready to fight the urge. Be mindful of what your go-to comfort food is and don’t have it available to eat! Stock your refrigerator and cupboards with healthy food alternatives.You will save yourself a lot of grief if you don’t see it and have to make the decision not to eat it. Bad habits run deep and willpower is not enough to overcome the urge to eat junk food. By continually making good choices, you are retraining your brain. It takes some time to make this new habit your go-to behavior. Do whatever you can to make this a comfortable transition because your brain won’t have enough energy to practice willpower alone.

Difficult Habit To Overcome:

Increased alcohol consumption to alleviate the depression and anxiety of the pandemic is a more difficult habit to overcome. Be honest with yourself about the reality of becoming addicted to alcohol over the last year. You need to reach out to others because your brain needs to know that you have a support system. Remove any of the emotional blocks you may be experiencing, such as being embarrassed, or overwhelming depression and anxiety. Your circumstances may have changed since the pandemic guidelines are being relaxed. If you only think of the next drink or have feelings of low self-worth – get some help. This situation is newsworthy right now because the number of people finding themselves in this situation has increased substantially.

COVID-19 has impacted every inch of our lives.  Please take care of yourselves.


Cleveland Clinic. (April 16, 2020). Why you shouldn’t rely on alcohol during times of stress. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org

Harvard Mental Health Letter. (February 15, 2021). Why stress causes people to overeat.
Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu

Mukamal, K. (October 1, 2020). A survey shows an increase in alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Retrieved from www.healio.com

About the Author:

Patricia Faust is a gerontologist specializing in the issues of brain aging, brain health, brain function and dementia. She has a Masters in Gerontological Studies degree from Miami University in Oxford Ohio. Patricia is certified as a brain health coach and received a certification in Neuroscience and Wellness through Dr. Sarah McKay and the Neuroscience Academy. My Boomer Brain, founded in 2015, is the vehicle that Patricia utilizes to teach, coach and consult about brain aging, brain health and brain function. Her newsletter, My Boomer Brain, has international readers from South Africa, Australia, throughout Europe and Canada. She has also been a frequent guest on Medicare Moment on WMKV and Cincy Lifestyles on WCPO.