The Coronavirus Pandemic and Eating Disorders: A Perfect Storm and Tips to Weather Through

The coronavirus pandemic has evoked a sense of living in an eerie, uncertain, and unpredictable dream. We all need to do our part to carry out public health recommendations to reduce the spread of COVID-19 (i.e., keeping a safe distance from others, practicing proper hand-washing and hygiene techniques, staying at home). But for those who struggle with an eating disorder, the isolation, stockpiling of food, empty grocery store shelves, along with a general sense of heightened stress and anxiety, can be a living nightmare. Indeed, eating disorders tend to develop insidiously in hiding, as a person becomes more isolated with their illness. Concerns about food scarcity and stockpiling food can create enough tension and anxiety to lead to binge and/or purge urges, while guilt about eating limited food may trigger restriction urges. For those in treatment with a prescribed meal plan, having limited access to their regular foods can create confusion, fear, and panic about what to eat. Disruption to our routines, including our food, eating, and activity routines, can threaten our sense of security. On top of all this, social media memes about weight gain and the ‘quarantine 15’, along with the plentiful messages about ‘staying fit at home,’ can bring upon intense body image distress and/or compulsive exercise urges. This combination can be a perfect storm for ED to rear its head.  

Although this can be a challenging time for those who struggle with an eating disorder, there are strategies to help ease, cope with, and tolerate the distress:

Maintain a (flexible) schedule and plan

Having a structure to our days can be hugely beneficial to our sense of security and stability. Maintaining regular meal and snack times can offer grounding anchor points throughout the day. Further, having a meal plan can reduce anxiety during this time when food-buying patterns are shifting. Building flexibility into that schedule and plan, however, can help to reduce the likelihood that rigidity and perfectionism flare, both of which may trigger eating disorder symptoms. For example, this might mean creating a meal plan with multiple options for meals and snacks, so that limited food available at the grocery store is less likely to create panic and distress. 

Connect with your physical self outside of exercise

Physical activity can be soothing and regulating. For those with compulsive exercise urges, however, connecting to our physical self in forms outside of exertive training might help to limit these urges. For example, stretching, deep breathing, or body-based guided meditations and mindfulness exercises can help to feel a greater connection to our body.  

Engage in tactile and sensory activities to cope with and manage eating disorder urges (e.g., crafting, drawing, playing an instrument, doing a puzzle).

Much of an eating disorder exists inside our internal worlds – doing something external by engaging our senses can help to shift our focus away from eating disorder thoughts and urges. 

Limit time on social media

Being inundated with overwhelming and conflicting messages on social media can contribute to heightened anxiety, depression, and unhelpful social comparison. Putting boundaries on scrolling through social media can help to prevent this spiral.

Seek connection and support

Although many in-person support groups have closed, online support groups may be available. Further, many clinicians are continuing to offer assistance through video and/or phone therapy sessions. The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (nedic.ca) runs a helpline and instant chat for those needing support. Hours are available on their website. Connecting in with loved ones and talking about our struggles can also help to soothe the distress associated with an eating disorder. Asking a loved one to help out with grocery shopping or meal prep may reduce the related stress, while also offering opportunities to feel connected to and supported by others.

And finally,

Be compassionate towards yourself

Eating disorders are notoriously harsh and critical. Gently approaching yourself with moments of self-compassion and kindness, acknowledging that this is a difficult time, and validating the struggle you are experiencing, can be a quietly powerful way to help weather this perfect storm. 

Clinicians at CFIR can support you in working with issues of weight and emotional eating.

Dr. Jean Kim, Ph.D., C.Psych. is a clinical psychologist at CFIR’s Toronto location. Over the past eight years, Dr. Kim has had the opportunity to work alongside people as they develop a greater understanding of themselves and their relationships. She has specific interests and training in working with people who struggle with disordered eating, weight, body image concerns, as well as those who are experiencing the challenges of integrating their cultural identity.

Weight and Emotional Eating

Do you find that you turn to food when you feel stressed, guilty, angry, bored or some other emotion? We all eat in response to our emotions from time to time. 

When is emotional eating a problem? When eating becomes one of the main strategies you use to respond to your feelings, when you feel weight becomes a problem, and/or when parts of your life are affected by your eating. 

Managing weight is not as simple as eating healthier and exercising more. We know now that our emotional experience plays an important role in weight management. Psychological treatment for weight and emotional eating will often involve helping you set behaviourally-anchored goals and explore patterns of eating related to your thoughts, feelings, relationships, and environment.

Some areas to explore if you are concerned about weight and/or emotional eating. 

1. Get a sense of any patterns in your eating? You can do this by logging your eating behaviour across the day for a week or two. Do you tend to skip breakfast or earlier meals and then find yourself overeating later in the day? Are certain emotional experiences more likely connected to times when you overeat (e.g., anger, sadness)? Or, certain situations (e.g., after conflict with a family member, when alone, after the kids go to bed)?

2. We all experience urges to eat food that we would like to limit and are surrounded by temptation. Consider removing certain foods from your home and ask your family to support your efforts. Otherwise, we are putting ourselves at risk of overusing our ‘willpower muscle’.

3. Practice taking an observer stance to your internal experience (e.g., feelings, thoughts) when the urge to eat shows up. What do you notice? Take a few minutes to just observe what’s going on inside of you (e.g., thoughts, feelings, physical sensations), without following any judgments that come up, before choosing what action to take (e.g., continue to reach for the bag of chips or chocolate bar or go for a walk or call a friend)? 

4. When working to make changes to weight and/or eating habits, it is important to set goals that are:

  • Behaviourally-anchored (I will eat three meals a day is a behavioural goal; I will lose five pounds is NOT) 
  • Realistic – ask yourself, is the goal doable? 
  • Important – set goals that are important to you right now 
  • Specific – the most useful goals are specific and concrete (e.g., half of each meal will be vegetables NOT, I will eat more vegetables) 
  • Scheduled – schedule your goals. Write your goals down. Post your goals and tell others about them. 
  • Reviewed – Goals change. Review your goals often.

Clinicians at CFIR can support you in working with issues of weight and emotional eating.

Read more about CFIR’s Neuropsychology, Rehabilitation & Health Psychology Treatment Service.

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