Anna reflects on how lockdown has affected those with eating disorders and why it’s okay to be not okay.
The effects of coronavirus have made people around the world re-evaluate how to protect our physical health with regards to staying clean and hygienic, and protecting each other from the virus transmission. The pandemic has also shone a light on another less obvious area of our lives; inactivity and food consumption. ‘The Quarantine 15’ memes are frequenting social media, encouraging viewers to jump-start their PE lessons, take on running challenges for charity or spend excessive amounts of money on gym equipment of which they’ve never used before.
Exercise is good. Don’t get me wrong. It is beneficial especially when cabin fever is ripe and social distancing are affecting our mental health. For those who are already vulnerable to body insecurity and anxiety, however, this new nationwide obsession can be quite detrimental; this impact is particularly significant for those in recovery from eating disorders. Eating disorders are based on a fear of being out of control. It drives the motives for disordered eating and body-control strategies such as starvation, exercise obsessions and binge/purge cycles, causing cause great amounts of guilt, frustration and low mood, which can subsequently encourage the ‘coping’ behaviours to continue in a cycle.
The effects of COVID-19 has thrust every corner of society into change and we’ve been forced to adapt to a new way of life. This drastic change, in itself, is already enough to threaten eating disorder recovery as support services have been restricted and individuals have to work through feelings, thoughts and behaviours under challenging conditions, often alone by themselves. Then there is inevitably the chance and ‘threat’ of weight gain, which, for those with body confidence issues is HUGE. Meanwhile, battling with difficult thoughts about body image can be a challenge for everyone, not just those who have a diagnosed disorder. The notion that we must maintain harsh body standards of ourselves and others is unrealistic and unhealthy at any time, but especially during a global pandemic. Trying to tackle difficult thoughts and feelings about ourselves when looking in the mirror is a challenge for many people; this shows that many of us do have a difficult relationship with our body, an area that we can all work to improve.
Weight gain might happen during this time and in fact, that is completely normal. For those who have a history of and are suffering with an eating disorder or body image issues, going on a lockdown diet and/or pressurise yourself into a fitness challenge can be unhealthy — not only for the potential negative impact on your physical health but more importantly, for your mental health. The anxiety you feel around the thought of weight gain proves that a health kick might not help the issue but further extenuate it and reinforce it. If you are eating normally and gaining weight, then you needed to gain weight. According to Set Point theory, if you are not pushing your body to extremes then your weight will fall within its natural limits. Accepting that these natural limits might not be the ‘stick-thin’ you crave will be hard, but by doing so, you may find your life a lot calmer.
With studying and working from home, we are forced to be static, to take it down a notch, to face the prospect of boredom, loneliness and isolation. The physical and mental effects on those who are living with body issues and disordered eating will vary according to individual circumstances. The difficult emotions arise during the pandemic may cause reliable ‘coping’ mechanisms, such as restriction, purging, binging, to emerge. It is important during these times to look to any advice you’ve been given in treatment and, if you’ve received no treatment previously, look to credible online support such as Beat. Remember that food is strength; I don’t think there’s a more important time for gaining strength than during a global pandemic. Remind yourself that you are not alone during this. Many people are experiencing similar thoughts and feelings. The key is to recognise them and work towards making things better. Now go and eat that ice-cream, I know I will.