Cindy Hamilton, 40, of Highwood, Illinois, has a trainer, works out four times a week, and ran the Marine Corps Marathon last year—and yet she’s gained seven pounds since November’s contentious presidential election.
“I’ll watch cable news while eating straight from a five-pound vat of licorice,” she confesses. “It numbs my worry. Plus, I’m like, ‘Everything’s going to sh*t, so I might as well eat candy.’ I never understood emotional eating before, but now, having a bagel and cream cheese makes me feel better in the moment.”
Studies, and scales nationwide, show that Hamilton isn’t alone. The sordid combination of heated political sparring and 24/7 news coverage of world calamity and crises—made worse by the attendant social media chatter and trolling—has driven more than half the U.S. population to eat, drink, or smoke as a result of the election, according to a survey by online health-care portal CareDash.com. Six percent of women have gained enough weight to cause them to see, or consider seeing, a doctor about it.
“Eating habits are greatly influenced by stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions, regardless of what triggers them—politics, work, or personal relationships,” says Darnestown, Maryland, psychotherapist Steven Stosny, Ph.D., who coined the 2016 phrase “election stress disorder” and, more recently, “headline stress disorder.” Constant exposure to terrorism scares and climate-change warnings, Stosny says, “creates a war-zone mentality in your brain, with each headline seeming like a little missile attack you’re hoping doesn’t hit you.” Small wonder that Ashley Womble, a 36-year-old communications director in New York City, has been avoiding the gym. “They play cable news nonstop,” she says. “I listen to music on my headphones, but whenever I look up from the treadmill, all I see is the news.” Womble estimates she’s now running five or so miles a week, as opposed to the 10 to 15 she was logging a year ago.
Some have called postelection weight gain the “Trump 15,” but headline-induced anxiety is nonpartisan: A post-election survey by the American Psychological Association found that national stress levels saw the sharpest rise in 10 years, with 59 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Democrats begging for a Brexit from reality.
It’s not uncommon to put on pounds in response to major life stressors, sometimes called “weight shocks” by researchers, whether the shocks are personal or global in nature. (Germans call weight gained from emotional overeating kummerspeck—literally, “grief bacon.”) Simply thinking about a stressful event that you’ve experienced makes you burn 104 fewer calories—about 11 pounds’ worth per year—per a study in Biological Psychiatry, and the study authors expect that a similar effect could happen when we ruminate about a nerve-wracking headline.
One culprit is hormones, says Fatima Cody Stanford, M.D., an obesity-medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. “When you’re upset, levels of the stress hormone cortisol rise, prompting cravings for sweet or high-fat foods.” Those urges are a throwback to prehistoric times, when we would stockpile calories in anticipation of famine. Similarly, when you freak out over current events, “your body thinks, Something I care about is at stake, and it compels you to eat,” says Washington, D.C., dietitian Rebecca Scritchfield, R.D. You’re apt to choose comfort foods like mac ‘n’ cheese or doughnuts, because carbs act “like edible Xanax,” she says, “stimulating the body to produce the feel-good chemical serotonin.”
NO REST FOR THE WORRIED
A social media habit can also make you lose sleep, another pathway to extra pounds. When you lag behind in Zs, your body can release ghrelin, the “feed me!” hormone, says Scritchfield. Late-night scrolling compounds the problem: The headlines may get your blood boiling, and the blue-screen light from your device affects how much and how well you sleep. Christine Knapp, a 39-year-old massage therapist in Los Angeles, blames her recent yo-yoing weight on bad bedtime rituals. “I look at the news on Twitter and I’m mindlessly munching, and suddenly an hour has gone by. I crawl into bed and can’t fall asleep, then I wake up with nightmares.” She has gained back six of the 12 pounds she’d lost before the election.
Sleep deprivation also hinders your greatest weapon in the fight against headline-induced stress: exercise. Not only does working out spur endorphins, but it fuels emotional resiliency. “When you work out hard,” says Scritchfield, “your mind often says, ‘I want to stop.’ But if you press through those pushups or that last five minutes of a run, it’s like strength training for your brain. It builds mental toughness.” So, the next time you’re faced with an emotional challenge—like reading an upsetting article—and you want to eat a cookie, you realize, “You know what? I’m stronger than this.” And you are.