It feels like the coronavirus lockdowns have gone on for a year. This may have been because March was about 336 days long, or it could be the stacked accumulation of allostatic load. Basically, even though most of us can consciously recognise we’re safe at home, allostatic load is that feeling of tiredness and damage to our bodies when our brains are constantly registering that we’re in a stressful, worry-inducing situation.
Syrup has written before about the increased struggle for people dealing with anxiety and depression during coronavirus. Those with mental illnesses of the disordered eating variety are doing it tough too. Eating disorders thrive in times of uncertainty and isolation, the two things that universally characterise right now. We previously spoke with The Butterfly Foundation For Eating Disorders about how to manage an eating disorder during coronavirus, today we’re zeroing in on a particular behaviour.
Binging and purging are behaviours that many people dealing with eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia struggle with. They’re incredibly complicated and can be wrapped up in so many different compulsions for different people. Whether they come from trying desperately to hang on to control, from feelings of guilt, from a sense of needing to “deny” oneself that causes a harder lapse into binging, the circumstances around coronavirus can exacerbate them even more.
Does everyone remember those first few weeks of panic buying? Changes in how much and what kind of foods there are in the house, as well as the disruption of traditional food breaks, can hugely disrupt someone’s management of their eating disorder. This is especially true if you live in a house with other people or your family. For many people baking up a storm, carefully crafting home gym setups, and keeping much larger amounts of Chicken Crimpys in the house isn’t a huge issue. But if you struggle with binging and purging the increased focus on food, bodies, and the fluctuating accessibility of familiar foods can be a huge mental burden.
It doesn’t help to view a binge or a purge as a personal failing that you need to feel guilty about. Untangling shame from eating disorders is tricky. If you’re not already I’d really encourage you to try to find an experienced psychologist who you actually gel with to work through what you’re going through. Tools like cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness can help you get to a place where you’re more likely to circumvent and sidestep a potential binge or purge.
A lot of specific advice on the internet can actually be slightly unhelpful in the long run—they can reinforce thoughts about restrictive eating or even make the issue physically worse. That said, there are a few psychologist approved ways you can help yourself at home. We spoke with Juliette Thomson, Psychologist and Manager of The Butterfly Foundation‘s National Helpline about how to take care of yourself after a binge or purge.
What are things people can do if they binge eat or purge to take care of themselves?
“One of the biggest challenges can be not entering a cycle of self-loathing or regret,” says Thomson. “Instead, have a think about what you can do that makes you feel good and safe. Is it an activity like craft, connecting with friends or family, maybe you need to have a sleep or listen to a relaxation podcast?”
When you’re truly in the depths, it can be hard to remember the things that you use to self soothe. Even something simple like keeping a list of the failsafe shows/films/ASMR videos that can take your mind to a more chill place (even if it’s just for half an hour) can make it easier to remember turn to that rather than sitting in unfounded feelings of guilt.
“Keep a journal and write down how you’re feeling and thinking. The aim isn’t to change how you’re thinking and feeling, but to create space and acceptance for it, thereby often increasing your ability to hold the feelings until they pass.”
“Reach out to trusted friends, loved ones and or health professionals for the connection and safety that you may feel you need. Connection with loved ones and friends can also help you step away from a criticism and regret mindframe and can provide you support for the underlying reasons you may have felt the urge to engage in eating disorder behaviours.”
Often, the act of binging and purging can be really physically draining and create a lot of tension in your body. If you feel comfortable with it (focusing on how the body feels might actually be the last thing some people want) you could try a very gentle form of guided meditation or muscle relaxation. Guided meditations can take you through a body scan, which is just about ‘noticing’ how your body feels, sending calm breaths to that space and trying to relax them. Others ask you to tense and then release a body part, like clenching your fists and letting them go. You can find loads of these in apps like Insight Timer and Calm, as well as on YouTube.
What can people do to avoid binge/purging in the first place?
As we mentioned above, Thomson recommends going to the professionals. “Seeking treatment is the best way to learn how to avoid a binge or purge,” she says. “These behaviours are not bad habits that can be easily switched off, but rather they are complex behaviours that need to be unravelled with the help of a support and treatment team. One thing you may learn in treatment is the power of delay and distraction. Although it may not completely stop a binge, it strengthens your ability to tolerate difficult feelings for longer periods of time, which will in turn increase your chances of not engaging in a binge next time.”
“Another thing you may want to consider is committing to journal writing before a binge or purge. This will not only put a space between the binge/purge, but if you commit to asking yourself what you are feeling, you may start to uncover the drivers of the behaviour, which could lead you to identifying new ways of coping.”
How can we support our friends with disordered eating while we’re isolated away from each other?
“One of the best ways to support someone with disordered eating during this time is to stay connected with them and continue your friendship,” says Thomson, “whether it be through video or regular calls, social media, or any other platform you use to connect.”
“Another practical way to provide support is to refrain from engaging in harsh criticism and judgement about your own eating habits at this time. Steer the conversation to other meaningful things in life, unless of course your friend wants to talk about their experiences in order to receive support.”
If you or anyone you know is experiencing an eating disorder we encourage you to reach out for support. You can call the Butterfly Foundation National Helpline on 1800 33 4673