By: Lesley Goth, Psy.D.
Quarantine life, as we all know, contributes to higher levels of stress, isolation, depression, and anxiety, to name a just a few of the many negative consequences of COVID-19.
In addition, these aftereffects also exacerbate symptoms related to eating disorders and tend to make recovery or managing an eating disorder exponentially harder.
Isolation and anxiety in and of themselves feed right into the need to hyper-control your food and become very rigid with rules related to eating and exercise.
Control and inflexibility around food and exercise are two main signs that you may have some form of disordered eating.
What is considered an eating disorder?
Eating disorders range from anorexia nervosa to bulimia nervosa or a mix of the two.
There can also be behaviors that are eating disorder related, but don’t exactly fit into a diagnosable category. This is called “eating disorder NOS” (not otherwise specified).
There is also binge-eating disorder which is similar to bulimia without the purging behavior that typically follows a binge.
You don’t have to have a full-blown diagnosis of an eating disorder to have what is called disordered eating.
Disordered eating is simply an unhealthy relationship with food that approximately five to 20 percent of people fall into if they don’t qualify for the full diagnosis of an eating disorder.
My guess is that percentage is actually much higher, as I have yet to meet a woman who doesn’t struggle in some way with her body and relationship with food.
If you struggle with an eating disorder or even with disordered eating, there is more going on underneath the actual diagnosis that gets masked and shows up as either restriction, bingeing, purging or all of the above.
In other words, the eating disorder is merely a symptom of a much bigger problem.
What are the symptoms underneath eating disorders that get inflamed by COVID-19?
- High anxiety
- People pleasing
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Fear of weight gain
- A high need for control
- A high need to stay busy and active
This list does not apply to everyone who struggles with their body and food, but are generally the underlying players in the eating-disorder game.
The stay-at-home order and the stress that ensues from quarantine life intensify all these underlying symptoms, as if they were on steroids!
Increased isolation is a breeding ground for eating disorders. So many eating-disorder behaviors come from shame and are done in secret where the voice of the eating disorder can have total reign and dominance over anything rational and logical.
The lack of freedom to exercise at a gym or having to wear a mask outside pushes against the rigidity of an eating disorder’s need to burn a certain number of calories on a daily basis, or at least have the control to stay busy and active.
This lack of control over the normal routine creates a tremendous amount of anxiety.
In addition, here is a list that is not exhaustive but illustrates just how many triggers there are and how quarantine life makes everything so much worse if you struggle with an eating disorder.
- Higher stress
- Increased time to sit around and think, which equals boredom
- Increased time on social media
- Either too much food in the house due to the need to stock up, or a fear of not having enough food
- Fear of getting sick or being infected with people’s germs
- Feeling out of control when restrictions will be lifted and life will get back to normal
- Loss of income
Furthermore, the loss of control and the loss of routine could lead you to turn to other maladaptive behaviors, such as drinking, drugs, or bodily self-harm.
The impact of social media on eating disorders during COVID-19.
Believe it or not, obsessing over social media could be a subtle form of self-harm. Let me explain.
Social media in and of itself is not a problem. However, if you’re not secure in yourself, then social media is prime territory to compare yourself.
Feeling inferior directly correlates with a higher need to control your food, weight, or environment. Having more time to spend on social media creates a shame-based, “not good enough” mindset.
Ironically, it becomes a vicious cycle. The more shame you feel, the more you try to assuage those feelings with eating-disorder behaviors, the more shame you actually feel.
According to Rebecca Pearl, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry and Director of Research at the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders, “Social media posts that stigmatize obesity and mock or diminish real struggles with weight and eating are harmful to people across the weight spectrum, and they may be particularly detrimental to individuals with obesity who are actively trying to manage their weight.”
If you are noticing that quarantine life and the stress of COVID-19 is impacting you and making your eating disorder worse, take a look at these tools and begin implementing them in order to feel better.
Here are 9 tools to manage the stress of COVID-19 while you’re also struggling with an eating disorder.
1. Meditation and yoga.
Practicing meditation and yoga are both particularly effective for anxiety and stress.
2. Stick to a routine.
Creating a routine helps you feel more in control.
3. Practice mindfulness.
A mindfulness practice — like writing in a journal and breathing exercises — help release and calm down the nervous system.
4. Light exercise.
Self-care with exercise that is not too strenuous. Try to have the goal of exercise for self-care, versus needing to burn a certain number of calories.
5. Find new activities to help with boredom.
Try a new word game on your phone, or pick up crocheting or knitting and create something special for yourself or someone you love.
6. Stay connected with friends and family.
Zoom with friends or family, and stay connected to people you care about.
Get lost in a great book.
8. Stay off social media.
The last thing you need is to be comparing yourself or looking at posts that are shameful about weight gain during this quarantine.
9. Seek out teletherapy.
Having professional support during the pandemic facilitates feeling safe to explore your recovery process.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, then please understand that COVID-19 is only making everything worse.
Be gentle with yourself and know that recovery is still very possible. It just may take time and patience to manage the increased stressors and pressures during quarantine life.
Lesley Goth, Psy.D., has specialized with eating disorders for over 16 years. She helps women learn important mindfulness tools in order to shift their relationship with food and their bodies. For more information, contact her here, or download her free ebook that teaches an important mindful eating tool.