I remember when Nicholas was young and in the hospital most of the time. Many times, his life hung in the balance. Jim tagged teamed shifts in the hospital when he could, but being the unemployed parent, I did most of the bedside care. And the worrying. And the eating.
Because we were 'lifers' at our local children's hospital, I had a free meals punch-card for the cafeteria. A fold-out chair by Nick's hospital bed was where I 'slept'. I remember thinking "Well, if I can't sleep, I might as well eat. If Nick gets worse this afternoon, I better eat more this morning. I'd better stock up on energy now if I have to skip meals tomorrow." I ate everything on my plate and more, and I ate it quickly.
I don't remember gaining that much weight, but that was only because of tall and slim genetic traits on my Dad's side. I wondered whether just staying awake and worrying most of the time burned just as many calories as working out at the gym. Despite consuming much more than my usual food intake, I never felt full or satisfied.
Caregiving is a minefield for anyone prone to self-medicating anxiety with their favorite foods. For me, it was carbs. Three meals a day of bread, potatoes and rice dishes were what my brain told me I needed. Intuitively, like a front-line soldier, I ate like I was gearing up for a battle that might break out any minute.
Here's my advice for caregivers who fall prey to these unhealthy eating patterns at times of extreme stress or even during long periods full of hyper-vigilance and boredom:
Remember, stress eating leads to mindless eating. Gobbling down lunch as fast as possible leads to a big meal being consumed with little memory of it afterward.
So, take a smaller portion. Come back for seconds or another course if you are actually still hungry.
Take small bites.
Chew slowly and savour tastes. Mindful eating experts recommend chewing each bite 20-40 times!
If you are with a loved one in the hospital and can't take the time away from the bedside to eat slowly, get your food to take away and eat in or near your loved one's room.
Don't go online during meals (this is a temptation in the hospital or whenever you are dining solo).
Be aware of your anxiety and have a few calming, personal non-food strategies up your sleeve - ones that you know work. Perhaps squeezing a stress ball (I relied on the old fashioned children's toy Silly Putty) or sipping a cup of herbal tea will quell your nerves enough to replace a craving for food.
This is not about dieting - it's about understanding what triggers everyone to overeat under times of great stress. It's a natural reaction to the flight or fight instinct that kicks in when someone we love is in crisis. Mindful eating as an alternative to overeating is one way to introduce a little bit of control into a caregiving situation that feels chaotic. And it will keep you healthier and stronger in the long term.