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If you have gained less than five kilos during the lockdown, congratulate yourself. And if it’s more than that, don’t beat yourself up. There are psychological reasons for weight gain that go beyond binge-eating, says Dr Prerna Kohli.

weight gain

According to a recent King’s College London and Ipsos MORI survey done in the UK, on changing diet due to food availability and lifestyle shifts, 48 per cent of the 2,254 respondents said they had put on weight during the lockdown. The COVID-19 virus and the subsequent lockdown have significantly rearranged lifestyles. If you have put on a few, know that you are not alone, and don’t stress and get anxious by overthinking it.

Weight gain during lockdown is not necessarily a bad thing because it protects you from developing a mental health issue. What helps is to understand where this need to eat more stems from.

This is why you might have put on weight during the pandemic –

The psychology of trauma 

The pandemic has affected the global economy and billions of people in different ways. It has uprooted students studying in other cities or countries, led to mass unemployment, put frontliners and their families at high-risk. In times of great anxiety and stress, we tend to regress to our basic needs and functions. Food is that basic need. We are in survival mode, and we tend to feel a greater need for things that assuage our anxiety. Food is a security blanket, and we have turned to it in current times.

weight gain

The effect of social isolation

The pandemic has drastically impacted our ability to socialise. Renowned professor of Public Health and Education, Klaus Hurrelmann states in his book Social Structure and Personality Development that socialisation is what shapes one’s personality. Cognitive processes interact with the social forces to form your personality and make you who you are. Think about yourself from a year ago, and compare that version to your ‘now’ self. You’ll notice changes, subtle ones. They prove you engaged with your environment and grew as a person. 

Social isolation does not let you ‘grow’. In turn, it increases anxiety and creates mental health issues. It also creates an inability to impose the self-discipline, which is needed for proper nutrition and balance of food intake. 

Rise of co-morbidities

No socialisation. People laid off. Everyone is staying at home with nothing to do. These kinds of stressful situations are especially worse for people who don’t have enough money. In psychological sciences, this is referred to as ‘comorbidity’, which means that there is the presence of more than one ‘disorder’. These stressful situations are exacerbated in people who can’t make clear plans. Co-morbid cases are worse and bring out intense reactions in people who cope with it in different ways, including turning to food. 

weight gain

Changing lifestyles 

It’s great that some people have taken the time out in the lockdown to work out (I know someone who ran the equivalent of a half-marathon in his balcony) and pursue hobbies. One such hobby is to cook/bake, and by extension eat, as is evident on our social media. 

Stress-induced eating is a common defence mechanism and can lead to severe eating disorders. By engaging oneself in cooking or eating, people avoid overthinking, and hence avoid anxiety. But on the downside, it leads to weight gain. Add to that that pandemic lifestyles have changed from fast-paced and hectic to sedentary. 

weight gain

If you feel you any of the above are true for you, this is what you can do to address your weight gain —

Give up on guilt

Guilt and self-reproach create endless cycles of negativity that can lead to further stress and weight gain. You are doing your best with the resources available, so focus on the good parts. If your loved one, husband or wife, child, parent or friend has gained a few kilos during the lockdown, respect that this is their way of coping. Don’t body shame yourself or anyone else who has put on weight.  

Cultivate a routine

The human mind craves routine as it soothes us and makes us feel in control. Creating a routine will give us a semblance of control at a time when everything seems out of your hands. It will also regulate hunger pangs and cravings.

Get the support you need

These are dark times, and you may have dark thoughts. Food is an indulgence right now, and it is understandable if you turn to it. But work with friends/family/peers who can empathise with you and are available to talk to you. Get the help of a mental health professional if you feel the need. The weight gained during the pandemic can easily be lost; a mental illness such as anxiety, depression cannot be treated as easily. 

weight gain

Acceptance

Accept that your body and mind are coping with a difficult time and stop the cycle of resistance. Allow yourself time to grieve for normalcy / a lost job / a sense of loss of time, etc. It will pave the way for greater acceptance of yourself and your flaws. Overall, all you need to do is moderate exercise, control your intake of food, increase your water intake, and accept that this was­­­ a survival mechanism. 

Dr Prerna Kohli

Dr Prerna Kohli (M.Phil, PhD) is the first Clinical Psychologist to be awarded by the President of India. She is a published author, an intensive research scholar, has been an adviser to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and is a member of the Niti Aayog Nutrition Committee. Dr Kohli works towards helping people sustain relationships and live more productively and happily.