We may all be on our #HomeRetreats doing our bit to help flatten the pandemic curve, but goddamn it, humans are smashing it right now… mostly because everyone is bored as hell. In the last week I have seen some incredible dance routines; watched the combat juggling world finals; tried a weird squirty cream challenge; seen home haircuts and hair colouring, cat traps, zoom meeting fails, and some damn cute quarantine flirting and dating.
But the number one activity many are engaging in to help deal with the tedious job of not going out, is boredom eating. Apparently, working from home without raiding your fridge every 10 mins is harder than anyone first imagined.
At first, I contemplated setting up a 12-step programme… “hello everyone, my name is Dominique and I can’t leave Chocolate Digestives alone”. But then I figured that it was probably quicker to just tell you how to stop eating your way through boredom in a blog post. Why do so many of us turn to food when we’re bored, and is there any way to stop it? Or are we doomed to eat our body-weight in Oreos and Hula Hoops every day we spend in isolation?
According to John Eastwood in his research paper “The Unengaged Mind: Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention”, there are a few reasons why people get bored, one of which is the cognitive theory of boredom, and it is surprisingly easy to solve.
This type of boredom happens during times like when you are on your fifth straight episode of “Tiger King” and your mind starts wandering. You know full well that you are not hungry, but you can’t get the chocolate biccies or that family bag of Cheetos out of your mind. The problem is that your brain is no longer engaged with Joe Exotic and “fuckin’ Carol Baskin” – the show is no longer stimulating enough to keep your attention (a crazy premise, I know).
When your environmental stimulation no longer matches your mental arousal needs, the likelihood is that you will get bored. It may be that the activity initially was interesting but at some point, your needs changed. Or it may be that the task was ridiculously dull to begin with, like doing your taxes. You need to be a special sort of person to find that exciting. It may even be that you’ve picked something to do which far exceeds the level of arousal that your brain can handle, like choosing “War and Peace” for some light reading, or attempting a recreation of the “Mona Lisa” when all your mind is up for is the colour by numbers app.
Lucky for you, we can make this type of boredom easy to deal with. All we need is a change in our environment. We need to find a way to stimulate our brain to the correct level. And we can get away with replacing the bored feeling with a biological chemical, dopamine, in the form of instant gratification.
Instant gratification is a throwback to our caveman days. It ensured that we accomplished tasks that guaranteed our survival, like find food, or have sex. And it did that by flooding our brains with dopamine when we did this stuff again and again. Our species wouldn’t have lasted long if we were satisfied forever with one good meal, or one decent orgasm. And we can still trick our brains out of uncomfortable feelings like boredom, by giving it instant happy feelings. Some of us choose technological solutions like the TV or social media for this dopamine hit, but the classics – food and sex – still work.
Food is a common go-to instant gratification strategy to help take us away from uncomfortable feelings. And it’s not hard to see why. Apart from our Mother’s touch, food was the first thing that comforted us: we cried, we got fed, we stopped crying. For many, that process is just as soothing now: we feel uncomfortable, we open the fridge, we are comforted and satisfied. We do this repeatedly because as a solution, it works really fucking well. So, show yourself some compassion – you picked a winning strategy… your subconscious brain doesn’t care that it might not be a strategy that your logical mind actually enjoys repeating, all it cares about is that it works to stop you feeling uncomfortable. And don’t forget, you could have picked way more destructive ways of preventing boredom than snacking… you could be reaching for a 10am vodka, or mainlining heroin.
Most personal trainers and dieticians would tell you that in order to stop using food to solve your boredom problem, you just need to distract yourself with a different form of instant gratification. Try switching on the TV, scrolling through your phone, throw your partner onto the sofa and get midday-frisky, take a bath, or read a book. Do whatever it takes to make your environment different and stimulating again.
But there’s another reason why your body turns to food first when you need a change of scenery, and often, it’s a PT or dietician’s fault… You’re starving! Being on a diet is technically starving yourself of calories, because if you eat fewer than your body needs, then (in theory) you will use your body fat to make up for this deficit. And like a mechanic going through a checklist of faults when your car won’t start, your primal brain does the same when it senses you feel uncomfortable. Your hunger is a nice quick fix for the brain to see if that makes you feel better, like if the mechanic were to top up your oil… just in case that’s the problem. Deprivation leads to cravings and binge eating, especially in times of emotional uncomfortableness. Maybe the boredom you are feeling is genuinely your body’s way of saying “Oi! I need a change of environment, and that change is that I actually see some goddamn food”. Feed it and see what happens, in fact, even better than that, make sure you are consistently giving your body enough good quality food to sustain the level of activity you do each day. 1200 calories is not enough food for anyone.
Weight loss coaches may also tell you to eat something ‘healthy’ to alleviate boredom hunger without adding too many calories to your day. But when you are dying for a sugary Mars Bar to hit that spot, carrot sticks are not going to cut it. It’s no wonder you are still craving food 20 minutes later. Do your body a favour, respect what it’s asking you for and feed it that the first time round. You’ll probably find – even if you are on a diet – that you’ll eat fewer calories giving your body what it really wants that first time around.
But then again, maybe you’re not hungry. Did you even think to ask yourself what it is that you want? If your initial reaction to boredom is “ooh, I need snacks”, then maybe take a second to question that thought. Ask yourself if you really are hungry. If the answer is no, then pick something more resourceful to do, use any of the suggestions above or pick anything else that makes you happy. Get used to checking in with every part of your body. Many of you are under the false impression that you need to do everything that your brain tells you. But in the same way as you can restrain yourself from punching your boss in the face when your mind says “hit the bastard”, you can also tell your thoughts that they are wrong. You are not hungry you are just bored.
That was the simple solution for you, and for many of you that will be enough. But if you need something a little deeper then you’ll probably want to keep reading. Because how about if you can’t stop eating?
You see sometimes snacking is a perfectly acceptable solution to your problem. But it becomes a problem that you might want to try fixing when eating becomes your go-to solution every time you feel bored, or every time you have any feeling that you don’t enjoy.
In his paper, John Eastwood and his peers study boredom in great depth and concluded that as well as simple environmental reasons, there are some more existential reasons why we get bored. Knowing these can help you turn your boredom into a useful tool to help build an incredible life, and I want to share these with you if the simple solution to boredom above just won’t cut it. I also want to share with you some techniques to stop eating if, like I described above, eating has become a solution to uncomfortableness that you use more often than you’d like.
So if you’re ready to be move on to the next step… click to part 2 of this blog.
I hope to see you there, you beautiful, brave weirdo.
(The Anti-Fitness Trainer)