The coronavirus pandemic is having far-reaching effects pretty much everywhere you turn. Not least of all, inside our own minds. Some psychologists and therapists have called what we’re going through right now a “collective traumatic experience.” If that sounds exaggerated, it’s worth remembering trauma isn’t always embodied in violent or even “dramatic” ways.
The world has been thrust into very uncertain circumstances. And while we can always aim for positivity, that doesn’t give us a social isolation end date, or reduce the burden on our medical and frontline workers. As well as its potential to exacerbate mental health issues like depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders, the coronavirus and the necessary act of social isolation can also be challenging and very triggering for people experiencing eating disorders.
Eating disorders are one of the most common mental health issues Australians will face—nearly 10% of Australians will experience on in their life. There’s no single type of person it will affect or way it will look and manifest. In fact, a quarter of people dealing with them in Australia are men. They’re disruptive and debilitating, and it’s not just unobserved isolation that can make them worse.
We’re all dealing with an unprecedented duality: the constant stream of memes and joke tweets about gaining weight during isolation, while simultaneously there’s never been a bigger push of at-home workouts, fitness apps and messaging that we need to be as productive and “healthy” as ever. The vast majority of what is said, shared and created on the internet and in traditional media isn’t coming from a trauma-informed place.
And even if you’ve been recovered for years, disordered eating, unhealthy behaviours and thoughts thrive in periods of uncertainty. I can tell you you’re not alone, you’re not a failure for slipping up, and you’re not sliding into a relapse, because I’m also telling myself these things. Alone and bereft of our usual carefully calibrated routines, it can be incredibly scary.
Our initial reactions can oscillate wildly between needing to squash down those thoughts, to give up and give in because it’s hard to see how else to manage the future and get back to a healthier spot, and huge amounts of guilt and anxiety. None of those things are it, chief. What helps, in the end, was trying to get back to gentleness and patience. This is going to be weird and hard but we need to try and treat ourselves the way we’d treat a friend who was struggling: listening to our anxieties, trying to understand where our behaviours are coming from and steering the ship back on course. I can’t control what’s happening in the world, but the answer isn’t trying to aggressively exert unhealthy controls over myself.
The Butterfly Foundation is one of Australia’s leading voices in advocating for all people affected by eating disorders and negative body image (including carers and friends of people dealing with the mental illness.) During the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been dedicated to ensuring that people experiencing eating disorders during this crisis receive the support they need.
When we reached out to them, we asked what kind of advice we could give other young people who are facing a similar struggle. The thing is, as we mentioned above, so much of the advice/tips/support out there—while well-intentioned—might not always have the desired helpful effect. What works as a coping mechanism or self-soothing thing for you, might lead to unhealthy or obsessive thoughts in someone else.
Take what you read on the internet with a grain of salt, or maybe one of those blocks of salt that cows lick.
Syrup spoke with Juliette Thomson, Psychologist and Manager of The Butterfly Foundation‘s National Helpline about why people dealing with eating disorders are facing a bigger challenge than normal during COVID-19, and the safe things you can do to help yourself while in isolation.
How can COVID-19 and isolation affect people with eating disorders?
“People living with an eating disorder during this time have indicated a significant increase in eating disorder behaviours and thoughts due to the high levels of stress and uncertainty associated with COVID-19,” Dr Thomson told Syrup.
She explains that, “Particular stressors may include but are not limited to:
- Disruption to food shopping, food availability, and access to familiar brands.
- Photos of supermarkets filled with empty shelves, and the stress of feeling like we have to rush out and purchase excess food, potentially leading to food hoarding and stockpiling.
- Exercise routines changing due to closure of gyms can lead to fear around body changes, as well as an increased focus on our bodies and what they look like.
- The inability to receive face-to-face support from comfortable networks such as friends, family, psychologists, dietitians and others can make those experiencing an eating disorder feel even more isolated and alone.
- Home isolation’s increased exposure to food which may result in bingeing or not eating according to routine.
- Comparison to others whilst being stuck at home, with increased pressure on us to be more productive and accomplish different things.”
As well as those suffering from the illness, it’s also those looking after them who are affected. “Carers of those with an eating disorder have also reported increased stress and concern due to COVID-19, primarily around:
- Drastic changes to their support routine.
- Difficulties with physical distancing.
- The health and healthcare of the loved one they’re caring for.
- The financial instability and impact on accessing treatment.”
How can increased media coverage of isolation affect people with eating disorders?
“These are strange times, indeed, where we are all trying to adapt or establish new routines at home,” says Thomson. “Many members of the general public are finding this challenging and so too are those struggling with eating disorders and body image concerns. The amounting stress and pressure to adapt or change during this time may increase eating disorder thoughts and behaviours, which can cause more things to become triggering for people, in particular certain media content or other people’s isolation routines.”
What are some things someone experiencing an eating disorder flare-up can do while in isolation to help themselves?
“For anyone experiencing an eating disorder, a change in routine, along with heightened levels of stress and uncertainty can lead to a significant increase in eating disorder behaviours and thoughts,” explains Thomson. “Eating disorders can thrive on isolation so during a time where most people are house-bound, it is critical to stay connected with family and friends. Social media (when used appropriately), video calls, and phone calls can all play a part in making sure we stay connected.”
“If you are experiencing eating disorder thoughts and behaviours during this time please reach out and ask for help. Remember, you are not alone and you don’t have to battle daunting thoughts or feeling all by yourself. I would recommend talking to someone you trust about your concerns or talking to a health professional. This is now possible through online video conferencing and the phone, so speak to your GP or health professional.” If you already have a treatment team in place, try to let them know what’s happening. They’re the people (and professionals) who’d be best placed to give you specific, tailored advice about managing your specific situation.
“Butterfly National Helpline is also a great place to connect and receive support,” says Thomson. “If you or someone you know is experiencing an eating disorder during this time, please connect with our national Helpline, open every day between 8 am and 12 midnight AEST. We can be reached at 1800 33 4673, via webchat, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org“
“Otherwise, these are some other positive ways you can support yourself instead of your eating disorder during COVID-19:
- Switch off media and social media —the intense coverage and conflicting messaging being shared across all platforms can increase feelings of anxiety and depression and also contribute to an increase in eating disorder thinking and behaviours. [If you can’t leave social media entirely, Syrup would suggest clearing out your feeds of accounts that could feed unhelpful or negative thoughts. You can also mute specific phrases or words on Twitter so you don’t have to see them.]
- Try and do positive things that lift your mood. These can be free and can have an incredible impact on how you feel. Some suggestions as follows:
- Listen to music.
- Gentle stretching or movement to music (ensure that movement is as per current recommendations from your treatment team or health professional.)
- Drawing and art can be a positive way to distract thinking or express moods.
- Breathing and mindfulness techniques can help manage feelings of stress.
- Reading is a great way to help relax your mind.
As well as the above, we’re big fans of trying meditation and journalling, but really if playing Animal Crossing the whole evening is what’s going to help you feel better, go forth and catch those fish.
“Above all, remember to be kind to yourself,” says Thomson, “take it one moment and thought at a time!”
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