The uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked fears over health and food scarcity for everyone, but it has been especially triggering for those with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder.
In short: Eating disorders and COVID-19 are an imperfect storm thriving during the pandemic.
“We are isolated from friends, families and support groups, gyms are closed, and we no longer go to an office or follow a regular routine,” said Lesley Williams, MD, a family medicine physician and eating disorder specialist at Banner Behavioral Health. “People are now having to endure and are left to their own devices, which undoubtingly is sparking unhealthy behaviors.”
With disrupted routines, isolation, fears over family and friends and more time scrolling social media, those struggling with an eating disorder might resort back to bad habits to cope, such as restricting food, bingeing and purging.
This is especially concerning for treating physicians like Dr. Williams who recognize the lethal impact life-altering events like the pandemic can have on those who battle this disorder. A review of nearly 50 years of research confirms that anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder.
Thriving in a Pandemic
For many, eating is a form of control. In March 2020, when food scarcity and stockpiling behaviors began across the country, increased anxieties and fears about eating or overeating grew among those with eating disorders. Grocery shopping was already triggering. Just throw in food shortages and frenzied behavior, and it becomes more difficult.
To add fuel to the fire, advice on social media cropped up warning us about gaining the “Corona15” during isolation. For those struggling with eating disorders, this warning also triggered anxiety and posed a risk for re-engaging in negative behaviors such as bingeing, skipping meals and over-exercising.
“Look, during these times, it should be normal and healthy to want to reach for some comfort foods versus a salad,” Dr. Williams said. “This can be hard when social media tells us to feel and look otherwise. It’s OK to normalize comfort food during this time.”
Ways to Maintain Balance During COVID-19
“People can recover from an eating disorder and have normal relationships with food,” Dr. Williams said. “However, stress and anxiety can trigger our brains to switch back to old habits. It’s important to recognize triggers and seek support when necessary.”
For those struggling to cope with an eating disorder or those noticing signs of a relapse, here are some ways to maintain balance.
Seek Healthy Connections
“This seems to be a common thread for those who’ve been most successful during the pandemic,” Dr. Williams said.
Connections with others that are healthy, positive and build you up are crucial for those battling an eating disorder, not just during uncertain times such as these. Schedule a virtual hangout with friends and family or go on a socially distanced walk or hike. Join a meal support group that offers helpful tips and tools that are effective in helping you during this time. Engage in anti-diet and body positive activities.
Limit Social Media
When it comes to connections, many of us consider Twitter, Instagram and Facebook tools to do that, but beware. “There is a direct correlation with body image concerns and interactions with social media,” Dr. Williams cautioned. “Not only are you being inundated with idealistic images of how you are supposed to look, feel and be, but even some of these memes or jokes poking fun at the pandemic and weight gain are falling short of that. We need to combat it.”
It’s easy to get sucked into social media. Skim the news and social media and set firm time limits. If you want to truly “connect,” text, call, FaceTime or even get old-fashioned with a letter.
Create a New Routine and Structure
Working from home, socializing from home, eating from home—everything is at home these days. This can definitely trigger some new or old negative habits or behaviors.
Keep a regular schedule. Pull up your Google calendar (or printed one), and block out your day for meals, work, family time, moderate exercise and personal time. Eat at regular intervals to ensure you are getting the right nutrition and regaining awareness of body cues, especially if stress affects your appetite. Join a meal-planning support group to help plan out your meals and snacks for the week.
Talk to a Professional
Reach out to the professionals in your area and make sure you are getting as much support as you can during this time. Many therapists and specialists are even doing assessments, outpatient programs and therapy through telehealth/teletherapy.
“If you have an eating disorder, life can be overwhelming even on your best day,” Dr. Williams said. “If you can’t on your own, don’t hesitate to ask for help from a trusted friend or family member to help you get plugged back in with support.”
Know You Aren’t Weak or Alone
Based on everything that is going on in the world, we should expect that the pandemic is affecting every single person we know. Recognize and normalize that you aren’t alone. Your illness isn’t a weakness; it should in fact be anticipated given the unprecedented nature of the world right now.
“It would actually be abnormal to say that the pandemic hasn’t impacted your life in some way or been triggered negatively in some way,” Dr. Williams said. “This is one time we are all hurting; we are all impacted. Let’s take the stigma and shame out of it.”
Are you struggling with an eating disorder or a mental health disorder during the pandemic? You aren’t alone.
If you notice it’s starting to impact your quality of life, family life and well-being, don’t hesitate to speak to a professional. Here is a list of resources to get you or a loved one help:
- Banner Behavioral Health: Call the Appointment Line at 800-254-4357. To find a Banner Health specialist, visit bannerhealth.com.
- National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA): Chat online, call or text for help at 800-931-2237.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): Call the 24-hour hotline at 800-662-4357.