Isolation Can Increase Depression, Anxiety & Eating Disorders: Tips to Stay Connected

Girl concerned about Gaining Weight After Anorexia treatment

Recent disease-containment strategies to stop the spread of COVID-19 have left thousands (if not millions) of people isolated at home. Research shows social isolation can increase depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, especially in vulnerable individuals. Here are three practical tips to stay connected and protect your mental health during a time of social isolation.

Isolation Can Increase Depression, Anxiety & Eating Disorders

Isolation is often a hallmark of mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Individuals suffering from these illnesses tend to isolate themselves (either physically or emotionally) from others. But far from alleviating symptoms, isolation often perpetuates depression, anxiety, and eating disorder and increases the likelihood of symptoms and behaviors.

For example, those with eating disorders often suffer from social withdrawal syndrome (isolating themselves from other people both physically and emotionally). One study found that ED patients who socially isolated themselves experienced an increase in symptoms and were less likely to seek psychological and medical treatment [1].

“Eating disorders thrive on secrecy and isolation. They get stronger when no one knows what you’re up to,” shares Lindsay Ronga, an eating disorder recovery coach with OutshiningED, in a Healthline article [2].

With many now forced to socially isolate from their communities due to COVID-19, the occurrence of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders is even higher. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) revealed that between April 2019 and April 2020, their helpline inquiries had increased by 83 percent [3].

Further, a study on eating disorder patients in the Netherlands and US revealed a huge percentage of participants were engaging in higher levels of restriction or bingeing (depending on their disorder), and even those who had not yet engaged in behaviors feared the pandemic would cause them to relapse [4].

Those with depression and anxiety (both of which commonly cooccur with eating disorders) are also at risk during isolation. Researchers found isolation, especially COVID-19-related isolation, is directly linked to an increase in anxiety [5]. Not only is there much more uncertainty to deal with (loss of jobs, fear of contracting the virus, etc.), but also many people are unaccustomed to being alone, and the loneliness and isolation is itself another source of stress and anxiety [6].

For those with (or vulnerable to) depression, being alone and isolated can cause them to get caught in a trap of negative thinking and feelings of hopelessness. “At a time like this, there’s a tendency to get lost in negative thinking,” shares Art Markman, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, in a Health article [7]. He goes on to say, “You can find yourself, not only spiraling into negative thoughts but feeling very closed in.”

3 Tips to Stay Connected During Isolation

Girl doing online therapy for DepressionWhile social isolation can increase depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, there are things you can do to safeguard your mental health and protect your recovery. Here are three practical tips to help you stay connected and support your mental health during this time.

Schedule Regular Social Time

You might not be able to go see a movie with friends or grab brunch at your favorite weekend spot, but there are still numerous ways you can stay connected. Schedule weekly phone calls with a friend, jump on a video hangout with family, host a virtual Netflix party, write snail mail letters, or invite a friend to come hang out in your yard or take a socially distanced walk outside (if laws allow).

It might be difficult at first to reach out to friends and ask to hang out virtually (especially if you’re suffering from anxiety, depression, or an ED), but remember, we’re all in the same isolation boat together. Most likely, they will welcome the idea of hanging out virtually, and you’ll boost not only your spirit but also lift theirs.

Enroll in Online Therapy/Treatment for Depression

If you suspect you’re suffering from the effects of isolation, consider seeking professional help. This is especially important if you are in recovery from an eating disorder. Many therapists, counselors, and ED programs offer online options, meaning you don’t need to wait until life gets back to normal to find help, support, and healing.

Join a Virtual Support Group

Another great way to stay connected during isolation is to join a virtual support group. Online support groups are a great place to connect with other people going through similar struggles and gain encouragement and support during a time of isolation.

If you need extra support for your eating disorder, visit this online ED support group resource. https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/recovery/support-groups Or if you are suffering from anxiety and/or depression, check out the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) online support group. https://adaa.org/adaa-online-support-group


References:

[1] Rotenberg, K. (2014, February 17). The Silent Suffering of Eating Disorders. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/matter-trust/201402/the-silent-suffering-eating-disorders.
[2] Curley, B. (2020, May 6). COVID-19 Sheltering Can Make Things Difficult for Eating Disorders. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/covid-19-sheltering-can-be-difficult-for-people-with-eating-disorders.
[3] Curley, B. (2020, May 6). COVID-19 Sheltering Can Make Things Difficult for Eating Disorders. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/covid-19-sheltering-can-be-difficult-for-people-with-eating-disorders.
[4] Robertson, S. (2020, June 1). COVID-19 negatively impacts people with eating disorders. News. https://www.news-medical.net/news/20200601/COVID-19-negatively-impacts-people-with-eating-disorders.aspx.
[5] Depression associated with loneliness and isolation should not go untreated. ProHealth Care. https://www.prohealthcare.org/news/2020/depression-associated-with-loneliness-and-isolation-should-not-g/.
[6] Jenna Birch Updated March 18, & Birch, J. What to Do if Social Distancing Is Making You Feel Lonely. Health.com. https://www.health.com/condition/infectious-diseases/coronavirus/social-distancing-mental-health.
[7] ibid.


About the Author:

Sarah Musick PhotoSarah Musick is a freelance writer who specializes in eating disorder awareness and education. After battling with a 4-years long eating disorder, she made it her mission to help others find hope and healing in recovery.

Her work has been featured on numerous eating disorder blogs and websites. When she’s not writing, Sarah is off traveling the world with her husband.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on 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.

Published September 9, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on September 9, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.