Managing Your Eating Disorder While At Home
Eating disorders are about more than food. They are highly complex health conditions that often require the intervention of both medical and mental health experts to alter both their course and their potential effects. In the United States alone, an estimated twenty million women and ten million men have or have had an eating disorder at some point in their life. Yes, boys battle with eating disorders also. Although eating disorders know no age, race, or ethnicity boundaries, they are, however, most commonly diagnosed in adolescents and young women.
Research shows there is a close relationship between anxiety and all types of eating disorders. For that matter, one study found that sixty-four percent of the six hundred and seventy-four participants (who were either anorexic or bulimic) had a diagnosable anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. 2020 is the year of the COVID-9 pandemic. Worldwide, there are an estimated 2.7 million COVID-19 cases. Here in the United States, there are approximately 847,000 cases, and to date, 47,000 people have lost their lives. These are sobering numbers, especially for a virus that remains without medical treatment or vaccinations.
Unfortunately, these statistics are constantly scrolling across the screens of news networks and on social media feeds. We hear about social distancing and watch state governments try to find a delicate balance between saving lives through business closures, social distancing, and stay at home orders while attempting to keep the economy from falling apart. Under current guidelines, most people are social distancing at home and, as a result, are experiencing abnormal amounts of anxiety and concern around COVID-19 and how it could impact them individually or their family and loved ones.
Many eating disorders co-occur with other mental health conditions. The most common of these are anxiety disorders. So, if your eating disorder triggers seem to be very sensitive these days, know that you are not alone. Anxiety and fear are running high worldwide.
Three Most Common Eating Disorders and Anxiety
- Anorexia nervosa- Anorexia nervosa or anorexia is likely the most well-known eating disorder. It generally develops during adolescence or the teen years and generally affects more women than men. Anorexia is also the most common co-occurring disorder with anxiety. Anorexia is strongly associated with anxiety as problems with anxiety usually precede the eating disorder and remain after recovery.
- Bulimia nervosa- Bulimia nervosa or bulimia is another very well-known eating disorder. Like anorexia, bulimia tends to develop during adolescence and early adulthood and appears to be less common among men than women. Anxiety can be a trigger for maladaptive eating behaviors, including bulimia. The unhealthy habits of binging and purging may serve as a means of distracting from feelings of worry, fear, or nervousness.
- Binge Eating Disorder- Binge eating disorder is believed to be one of the most common eating disorders, especially in the United States. Similar to anorexia and bulimia, binge eating disorder often begins during adolescence and teen years. People with binge eating disorder typically eat large amounts of food in relatively short periods of time and lack control during binges. Those with binge eating disorder do not restrict calories or use purging behaviors to compensate for their binges. Binge eating disorder and anxiety are deeply intertwined and often co-occur. It is not uncommon for people to overeat when they experience anxiety, but people with binge eating disorder experience both issues together with excessive frequency.
Keeping Your Disorder in Check While Staying Home
Throughout the United States, almost every state is operating under stay at home orders. As a result, people are feeling more isolated than ever. The constant updates about COVID-19 infections, death rates, financial impacts, and the ever-changing guidelines are a significant source of stress and anxiety. It is not unrealistic to believe someone who was recovering from or struggling with an eating disorder before COVID-19, could be experiencing heightened symptoms and more frequent triggers. In addition, most of your teen’s traditional treatment plans are not available due to social distancing and the current limitations on group gatherings.
Armed with the knowledge that COVID-19 is not likely to simply go away any time soon, what are some things you can do to keep yourself on track with recovery? Below we have highlighted a few options. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and it is highly suggested you do what you feel works best for you.
1 – Get connected
Yes, social distancing and making the conscious choice to stay home are necessary for the sake of flattening the curve and slowing the progress of the virus. It is believed that maintaining a distance of at least six feet between ourselves and other people will limit the spread of the infection and help to protect ourselves and those around us. This does not mean we need to be completely shut off from everyone until the pandemic resolves. During times of heightened anxiety, we need our social support systems more than ever. For teens, this is particularly challenging as they have been unwillingly removed from their social networks and school. It is crucial for them to remain in contact with those who can help them during stressful or triggering events.
- Stay in contact: Try to make and keep regular FaceTime (or similar virtual chat forum) dates or appointments with friends and loved ones. These are valuable ways to stay connected even when you cannot physically be together. These conversations can help to alleviate anxiety around the health and wellbeing of others, but they can also help to provide accountability and be useful in supporting ongoing recovery.
- Keep in contact with your treatment team: If you have a treatment team, you still work with, keep meeting with, and seeing them virtually, if possible. It will not feel the same; however, it is a type of communication that is vital to continued recovery.
- Have a party- Well sort of. If your teen is need of a way to unwind with friends while still maintaining social distance, try using Netflix Party. This is an extension of Netflix, which allows you to add and watch shows with friends together. If you are struggling with feelings of loneliness or increased anxiety, this could be helpful. Although you may not be physically in the same room, there is an element of comfort, knowing someone is there with you. This can also be a great distraction when you are feeling triggered.
2 – Be Flexible and Allow Yourself A Little Slack
If you have been to the grocery store recently, you are likely aware that the stock for some products can be very limited. In some cases, your local store may not have the safe foods you or your teen rely on. This can be unnerving and scary, especially when you are in a routine that is working well for you. It is important not to let your eating disorder or associated stressors get in the way of making sure your teen is taking care of themselves physically.
- Canned foods are OK: True, canned goods are not necessarily what you usually eat, however, it is better to eat something as opposed to allowing yourself to go hungry (or give in to your eating disorder) while awaiting the next delivery of fresh veggies. Do not restrict yourself in an unhealthy way. Processed foods, although not as desirable for most as fresh, are not dangerous, especially if the choice is between eating processed or canned foods and nothing at all. Permit yourself to eat the foods that are available to you.
- Use food to soothe: Stay with me for a moment; I know this sounds counterintuitive. However, if you have noticed, you are stress or binge eating more now that usual, this makes sense. These are times of highly increased stress and anxiety. It is ok to allow yourself to self-soothe (within reason) with food. The more you feel guilty about emotional eating, the more you attempt to restrict or “make up for the binge,” thus putting yourself back into a disordered eating cycle.
3 – Make Schedules
For many of us, staying at home all the time has completely thrown off any semblance of a schedule. Pajamas have become our work clothes, and if we get at least partially dressed for a Zoom meeting, it’s a miracle. Teens are trying to do complete their academic year at home and doing their best to maintain something that resembles a typical daily schedule. Try to find a rhythm that works for your family and stick to it as closely as you can. Maintaining forward progress during a quarantine is not an easy, not a perfect process. Recovery isn’t about perfection but about making the next best choice that is recovery minded.
4 – Exercise or Just Move
Ok, full disclosure. People may gain weight during quarantine, and that is OK. Our bodies are not meant to stay exactly the same day in and day out. During quarantine, exercise may or may not be possible, especially if you are caring for a loved one who is ill or become ill yourself. Some people struggle with a disordered relationship to exercise in their eating disorders. Others find exercise as a helpful way to relieve anxiety and improve mood. For some, exercise is a distraction or a coping mechanism for stressful events or triggers. Whatever the relationship with exercise, please know that intense physical activity is not necessary at this time. The use of gentle movement such as yoga or even meditation practices can not only help to relieve stress and anxiety but also help to center emotions and help your teen refocus and steady their emotions.
Finally, remember there is no best way to handle this situation. You, your teen, and your family are doing the best they can with a strange and unprecedented situation. The lives of almost every American citizen have been turned upside down, and unfortunately, for the short term, we live in an era of elevated anxiety and fear. Allow yourself and your teen room to grieve losses and process the changes that are taking place in your lives. Also, remember feelings (everyone’s) are valid regardless of what they are. There is no right or wrong way to handle social distancing, quarantine, isolation, or any of the other new normal we are all experiencing.
If you find that your teen is expressing triggered emotions more often than usual, be there for them. Navigating recovery from an eating disorder is challenging under the most normal of circumstances with what we would consider standard levels of teen anxiety. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, stress and anxiety are at an all-time high. It is not unrealistic to believe the anxiety they are feeling about current events could trigger disordered eating behaviors. If possible, use virtual communication means for your teen to communicate with therapy and medical providers.