Drinking and eating in moderation

UCLA psychologist Kate Wolitzky-Taylor, PhD, reviews how to use urge surfing as a technique to curb junk food and alcohol cravings

So far in the Care Package, we’ve shown you how to cope with negative thoughts and feelings brought on by stress caused by the pandemic. But what do you do when your coping strategies become a problem?

Many people turn to junk food and alcohol to feel better. And it’s easy to understand why. A great deal of research has shown that junk food and alcohol activate the “pleasure centers” of our brain. As a result, they bring about brief, positive changes in our mood.

As long as it is done occasionally and in small amounts, eating junk food and drinking alcohol won’t lead to physical or emotional problems for most people. However, many people have trouble eating and drinking in moderation. This is especially true when people are under great stress or experiencing sadness, anxiety and boredom.

When people are feeling down, they often turn to quick fixes like cookies, chips, beer and wine. If people do this excessively, problems can result. Too much junk food and alcohol have been proven to not only lead to health problems but also emotional ones. In addition to weight gain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, excessive eating and use of alcohol can make you feel sluggish, agitated and guilty. Also, while alcohol may make you feel good in the short term, excessive use can lead to addiction and serious health consequences.

In this section, we describe three skills that can help you decrease your reliance on junk food and alcohol and increase your use of other coping skills with fewer negative consequences.

Skill 1: Develop other ways of feeling good

It’s important to ask yourself why you are turning to junk food and alcohol in times of stress. If it’s because consuming these things tends to relieve stress or bring on feelings of joy, ask yourself how long those good feelings last and if there are any negative consequences for you.

Often, people report that even though they feel good when they eat junk food or drink alcohol, the effect is temporary, and these actions tend to bring on problems later. If that’s the case for you, let’s brainstorm other ways of feeling good that may last longer and have fewer negative outcomes down the road.

Do you enjoy listening to your favorite playlist or podcast or going for a walk in the park? You might feel better if you call a friend or family member, take a hot shower or bath, enjoy a hobby or watch a sitcom. Once you have a list of things that make you feel good, answer the following questions:

1. What positive feelings do the activities bring on?

2. How likely are they to improve your mood?

3. Can you identify any negative outcomes from using this strategy?

The goal is to identify things that are likely to improve your mood and have no or very few negative impacts. Then, the next time you feel like turning to junk food or alcohol, try doing something off of this list instead.

On your own: Create a feel-good activities list and be prepared to select something from the list instead of cookies or a drink.

Skill 2: Put temptations out of reach

There is a concept in psychology known as stimulus control. Basically, it means that human beings behave differently based on what they have access to in their environment. So if you want to change your behavior, it often helps to change your environment.

If your cupboards and refrigerator are full of junk food and alcohol, it will be all too easy to turn to those things when you are feeling stressed or down. If they are harder to access, you will be less likely to turn to them.

For many people, using the following three tactics can reduce excessive eating and drinking:

  • Don’t buy the tempting items or buy smaller quantities (e.g., buy a quart of ice cream instead of a half gallon).
  • Place the objects out of plain view or easy access (e.g., cabinets that are hard to reach).
  • Portion out the food or alcohol to reduce the risk of mindless consuming (e.g., put a single portion in a bowl rather than taking a bag of chips to the couch).

On your own: Refer to the how to guide for tips for reducing access to your vices.

Skill 3: Practice urge surfing to ‘ride out’ your cravings

Some people consume junk food and alcohol because they are bored, and it’s an easy way to get a quick boost. Others, however, crave these things. Cravings are intense urges for something that quickly goes away once you have consumed what you are craving. We most commonly think about cravings in terms of items like alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and chocolate.

Interestingly, research shows that cravings will go away over time even if you don’t give in and consume what you crave. So it can be helpful to train yourself to “ride out” your urges by sitting with the feeling without acting on it until the craving reduces to a manageable level. We call this urge surfing.

Urge surfing can be done in several ways, but one of the most effective is to do it as a type of mindfulness practice.

On your own: try out the urge surfing technique next time you have a craving.

Controlling those urges

During times of stress, it’s tempting to turn to “quick fixes” for stress, such as eating unhealthy foods or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Doing this may feel good in the moment, but can bring on physical and emotional problems over time. We encourage you to practice one or more of the three techniques described above to turn your attention away from your cravings.

It’s important to note that if you or a loved one believe that you may have a major problem with food, alcohol or drugs, it’s a good idea to seek help from a medical or mental health professional. Please see the Guides for Resources page for information on finding help.

Downloadable resources to use on your own

Information Sheet:

How-to Guides:

Fillable Activities: