How to Tackle Eating Disorders Through the Power of Self-Love
While the world rightfully focused its attention on containing and combatting the coronavirus over the last few years, a group of individuals fell dangerously under the radar. As the world dealt with lockdown, the combination of isolation, lack of structure, and uncertainty of the future led to a spike in mental health cases—quite notably those that relate to eating disorders.
The pandemic disrupted our normal routines
As some doctors referred to the increase of eating disorder (ED) patients as a “tsunami”, the Priory Group noted a 61% increase in inquiries at its private clinics. But just how did the pandemic lead to this?
Well, one article published on PubMed Central—a resource of the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health—described three pathways during the pandemic that have led to greater risk of eating disorders. Firstly, the disruptions to daily routines and more limited outdoor activities can increase weight and shape concerns, and negatively impact eating, exercise, and sleeping patterns. Secondly, the pandemic and accompanying social restrictions can deprive individuals of their usual social support and adaptive coping strategies. Thirdly, increased exposure to anxiety‐provoking media can create greater fears of contagion leading to the pursuit of restrictive diets focused on increasing immunity.
The spread of the coronavirus changed the world as we knew it forever, making the fear of the unknown a reality–we lost our psychological comfort blankets, and for some the struggle was much more of a challenge. When coping strategies are stripped away, focusing on food and body image can offer a distraction and purpose. “It gives a sense of control,” explains Harriet Frew, an eating disorder therapist and a bulimia survivor. “It offers a feeling of achievement, when healthier outlets are not accessible. It numbs feelings that are difficult to deal with.”
What is an eating disorder?
An eating disorder is a mental illness, and can impact people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities. “It’s an unconscious coping strategy to deal with difficult feelings and life situations,” explains Frew. “Someone with an eating disorder will value their self-worth in relation to changing weight and shape, and controlling food intake.”
The most common eating disorders include: anorexia nervosa, controlling weight by not eating enough; bulimia, purging after losing control of food consumption; binge eating disorder, when a person feels compelled to overeat on a regular basis; and other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED).
How to spot an eating disorder
Eating disorders affect at least 9% of the population worldwide. That might not sound like much but when you consider the population is around 7.7 billion that means 693 million people are suffering from an eating disorder, and the chances of us knowing someone struggling is high.
Portrayal of eating disorders in mass media can be misleading, and may have us looking for the wrong warning signs. The fact is, we’re more likely to notice changes in a person’s behavior before we recognize physical signs such as extreme weight loss. “[Pay attention to] someone who may have become more withdrawn or low in mood,” says Frew whose popular podcast, The Eating Disorder Therapist, supports eating disorder recovery. “They may also show anxiety and have developed rigid routines, which feel difficult to step away from. They may have stopped doing normal life activities and be increasingly withdrawn.”
Hiding food or eating a restrictive diet as well as an unhealthy obsession with exercise are also tell-tale signs. “There will be a sense of unease and anxiety,” adds Frew. “They may be more secretive as eating disorder behaviors can create much shame.”
The unknown side effects of eating disorders
Eating disorders put incredible strain on the body often leading to multiple health complications. Many people with eating disorders suffer from osteoporosis, increasing the risk of fractures; anemia; heart problems; thinning head hair; increase in downy body hair; erosion of teeth; or an absence of menstruation.
“The most challenging part of my journey to recovery was just keeping myself alive,” explains Queeny June Borgman, a dietician and eating disorder survivor. “In the beginning I was just very underweight, but this led to numerous problems. My breathing and eyesight was affected, I had my first cavity and it left me with arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) for some time.”
Borgman emphasizes that while the physical strains can be critical, the biggest battle is a mental one. “When I was out of that danger zone, it was my mind I needed to look out for,” she explains. “I really didn’t enjoy life for quite some time, especially in my binge phase. It felt like I was living a double life, and let's put it this way: I didn’t want to be around anymore.”
Help is out there
For many with an eating disorder there can be a sense of anxiety and of being in it alone. This has only been heightened during the pandemic with daily life, routines and rituals disrupted across the globe, but recovery is possible. Here are a few approaches to consider:
Tap into a wealth of resources:
Seek specialist help. Read books, listen to podcasts and watch moodlifting YouTube videos.
Lean on your support system:
Frew insists, “Surround yourself with positive recovery stories and talk to close friends. Maybe even join a pro-recovery community. Pursue interests and meaningful work that are in line with your values.”
Get your zen on
Tackle anxieties head on with breathing exercises, as well as planning daily self-soothing and calming activities. Borgman believes in the power of affirmations. “There are certain words or sentences that can give you power and calm your nerves,” she says. “For me it was actually something my sister once said to me, ‘Queeny, it took you four years to ruin your body, it will take some time to build it up again.’”
Caretakers and family need support, too
Knowing someone suffering with an eating disorder can be upsetting and cause us to feel anxious, but it’s important not to be a passive bystander—it’s necessary to show we care. Remember eating disorders are a coping strategy about underlying feelings. Frew warns, “Showing a heightened emotional response is likely to drive their behavior inwards and they will be less likely to open up to you. It’s helpful to encourage the sufferer to talk about how they feel and to create an open channel of communication, when they are ready to talk.” Try to understand why they might have an eating disorder. Also, getting to know more about what eating disorders are will help.
That said, while it’s imperative to offer support to someone with an eating disorder, let’s not forget it’s also hard on friends and loved ones, too. It can be painful watching someone we care for struggle in such a fundamental way.
“It’s important that people in the family are educated and informed about what is happening to their loved one,” says Frew. “It’s also helpful for them to access their own therapy and to have space to talk about difficult feelings.”
Borgman agrees, adding, “Often people can have the feeling that their problems don’t matter anymore, because having someone with an eating disorder in the family is more concerning. But, it is so important to talk about it in a safe environment where there is no blaming or shaming. You want to have a conversation that is targeted to get what is going on in everybody’s mind and heart, without judgment.”
Self-compassion can lead to recovery
As the distribution of Covid-19 vaccinations increases, the next great leap is returning back to life in a post-pandemic community. While for some this is a great relief, for those with body issues a reintroduction into society can be hugely nerve-wracking. “Take things slowly,” recommends Frew. “Focus less on the body and find hobbies and interests that inspire and bring enjoyment and fulfillment. [At the end of the day] other people don’t care about your body—they’ll be thinking about their own.”
As well as not comparing ourselves to others, it’s important to instead focus on positive energy and appreciating our bodies. Ultimately, we need to be nicer to ourselves and express some self-compassion. “Self-love makes you reconnect with your body and makes you appreciate it more,” says Borgman. “So, stop the shady comments about your body and how it looks, feels or how others may perceive it.”
While the ongoing pandemic, and its subsequent uncertainty of death, may have exacerbated issues of self-confidence and self-shame it’s important to recognise, and appreciate, that we have survived. Eating disorder recovery advocate William Hornby sums it up perfectly in his now trending reel, “Let me get this straight, your body has kept you alive during a global pandemic and you're upset because it doesn't look the way you want it to? It had other priorities, and it delivered on them. Say thank you!”