Eating Disorders of any kind thrive on attacking when the individual is vulnerable. Eating Disorders are maladaptive coping mechanisms one uses to manage unwanted feelings or pain of any sort. With the uncertainty we are now faced with as a nation with the Coronavirus quarantine and pandemic, people are turning to their go-to coping strategies to help them manage their “new normal.”
This “new normal” includes limited (or no) social interaction for some, lost jobs or cut wages for many, and the majority of people who know at least someone who has been infected or is in an “at-risk” group. In such uncertain times, Eating Disorders sweep in as a false sense of control in an otherwise completely out-of-control world we are living in.
For those with Eating Disorders, the behaviors (whether restricting, purging, bingeing, etc.) provide a sense of comfort and ease, at least for a moment in time. Eating Disorders generally get louder when times are uncertain or when the individual is faced with some kind of hardship.
According to Baird , “The coronavirus outbreak has put people with eating disorders and people recovering from them in perilous positions. We’re without normal access to recovery groups, and in line of fire for all sorts of triggering situations and conversations while socially distancing and quarantining.”
Without proper resources and with more exposure to daily triggers, individuals with Eating Disorders are feeling the urge to numb their emotions as a means to escape. The disorder becomes a strategy for the person to “numb out” and not experience their full spectrum of emotions because their senses are dulled due to malnourishment.
Moreover, Eating Disorders thrive in isolation. Many with Eating Disorders like to hide their disorder from the outside world due to shame or guilt. Therefore, symptoms tend to come out more freely when the individual is in isolation. It only follows, then, that those with symptoms may find their urges heightened at a time with which we are currently faced.
Coronavirus Quarantine and Healthy Coping Mechanisms
One way that the Coronavirus quarantine directly affects those with Eating Disorders is that thinking about/planning out food is a distraction from everything else going on right now. Specifically, structuring your eating is a way to feel a false sense of control and order.
According to Sung , “People with eating disorders tend to be more rigid and have trouble with flexibility.” Individuals that struggle with rigidity, which tend to be individuals with Anorexia or OCD or another control disorder, will feel especially in need of a way to order their ever-changing world right now.
They can turn to food, their trusted companion, as a way to try and navigate their days and provide some sort of outlet. A way of combating, or reframing, this need for control over food is to turn the control onto some sort of healthy outlet.
According to Malacoff , “Fear is a natural response to what’s going on in the world right now. But instead of worrying about gaining weight, Scritchfield recommends facing anxiety head-on by creating a self-care checklist based on practices that have inherent value.”
In other words, now is a time to think about and discover some healthy coping mechanisms. To do this, think about what you generally enjoy spending your time doing, or reflect upon what makes you the happiest.
You can create time in your day to focus on these things that make you feel more at ease and give you an outlet. In this way, instead of channeling your emotions in a way that ends up harming yourself, you are using them to your benefit.
Another aspect of the effect of this pandemic on Eating Disorders is the fact that so many people are talking about their fear of gaining weight in quarantine. There is even a trend on Instagram about the “Covid-15,” which is a spin-off of the “freshman 15” that people get worried about during their Freshman year of college.
Those using this hashtag express their fear of gaining the “Covid-15,” or 15 pounds, stressing the importance of daily exercise and rigid meal plans during this time of isolation. When individuals with Eating Disorders see hashtags like this or the many stories and posts about people watching their weight during this time, it becomes incredibly difficult to not get sucked into these ideals/behaviors.
It’s important for those struggling to maintain healthy boundaries with social media at this time, and perhaps stop using it temporarily altogether if you feel it is toxic for you. Give yourself a time limit about how many hours per day that you will allow yourself to use social media.
Also, if you are feeling triggered, try to talk to a trusted family member or friend. Better yet, if you have a therapist, this is someone very important to reach out to during this time. If you do not have a therapist, this may be a time to get one!
As much as this time is scary and unknown, what’s important now is health on every level. If you have been struggling with an Eating Disorder, you can use this time to empower you to focus on your recovery. You can channel your worries and frustrations into taking good care of yourself.
You can use the fear of getting sick as motivation to treat your body well and practice more self-care. Know that, yes, this will be a difficult time, and you may be faced with increased urges. Pay attention to those urges, and try and make a different, healthier choice for yourself.
Continue to keep yourself centered and come back to your overall goals. Use this difficult time as something that brings you closer to, not further away from, recovery.
 Baird, Addy. “The Coronavirus Outbreak ‘Like a Nightmare’ For People with Eating Disorders.” (2020, March 20), https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/addybaird/coronavirus-quarantines-eating-disorders-recovery  Sung, Morgan. “Joking about Weight During Social Distancing isn’t Helpful for Eating Disorder Recovery.” (2020, March 19). http://mashable.com/article/social-distancing-jokes-eating-disorder-recovery/  Malacoff, Julia. “For Many People with Eating Disorders, Quarantine Is an Unexpected Trigger.” (2020, March 20). http://www.instyle.com/beauty/health-fitness/coronavirus-eating-disorders
About the Author:
Emma Demar, LMSW is a therapist at Intrinpsych Woman on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She holds an LMSW from Fordham University and holds a BA in Creative Writing from Trinity College. Emma recently completed a 2-Year Fellowship at Intrinpsych where she was expertly trained in Eating Disorders and DBT.
She uses a holistic approach in working with her patients, drawing from her background in Psychodynamic, CBT, and DBT, and she likes to begin where the client is and work from a strengths-based perspective. She specializes in Eating Disorders, OCD and related mental health disorders. Emma uses a direct, honest and open approach in working with her patients, who are generally women ages 12 to 32. She freelance writes for various mental health websites, and she blogs on her own website, thattrendytherapist.com.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Reviewed & Approved on March 25, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC
Published March 25, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com