Stress, trauma, and perception of eating behavior changes during the first weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak



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Journal Article

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Publication Title

International Journal of Eating Disorders





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COVID-19, eating behaviors, perception, stress, trauma


Objective: The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the largest collective stressors in recent history. Consistent with prior research, this stress has led to impactful eating behavior change. While prior life traumas also impact eating behavior, it is unclear whether the current stress experienced during COVID-19, and prior life traumas (overall, socially relevant, and nonsocially relevant), interact to influence eating behavior changes. Moreover, it is unclear whether current stress and prior traumas impact how eating behavior changes are perceived (i.e., in magnitude, valence, or both) by the individuals experiencing the changes. Therefore, this study sought to examine both the relationship between current stress and perception of eating behavior changes, as well as the moderating impact of prior life traumas on this relationship. Methods: Between March and April 2020, participants completed a subjective, self-report online assessment of current stress, prior life traumas, pandemic-related changes in eating behaviors, and the perceived impact of eating behavior changes. Results: Higher current stress was associated with larger, more negative perceptions of eating behavior changes. This relationship was moderated by prior life traumas. Specifically, the association between current stress and perceived negative impact of eating behavior change was potentiated among those with more prior socially relevant (but not nonsocially relevant) traumas. Discussion: These results suggest eating behavior changes occurred early in the pandemic and were uniquely impacted by the cumulative effect of present stress and socially relevant prior life traumas. Public Significance: Changes in eating behaviors and pathology have been prevalent during COVID-19. We examined how stress and prior life traumas interacted during the first weeks of COVID-19 to influence perceptions of eating behavior change. As altered perception of eating behaviors is a notable feature of eating pathology, these results will help inform development of intervention targets for those at risk for developing disordered eating during future- and post-pandemic recovery.

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