Eating disorders have been on the rise for years, and we’ve always known that there are many more people struggling than statistics could show.
Yet, there was a sharp intake of breath in response to the recent release of the Health Survey for England 2019 Eating Disorders Report which found that, even pre-pandemic, 19 per cent of women and 13 of men in England could test positive for an eating disorder.
Since the study was carried out, the number of people struggling has been exacerbated by lockdown, with particular concern about the risks of restrictive eating disorders in children. In December last year, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health alerted parents to look out for anorexia and other restrictive eating disorders in their loved ones, citing social media use, health insecurity and bearing witness to family difficulties, such as financial insecurity, as contributing factors.
As a specialist eating disorder treatment service, we’ve noticed a greater sense of urgency and fear from both the individuals suffering and their families during lockdown. We saw a 90 per cent rise in enquiries during the first lockdown in 2020, a 30 percent rise in enquiries from parents of children aged under-16, and a rise in Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)-related enquiries. This implies that the more time we spent around one another in lockdown, the more we are able to spot concerning behaviours in our loved ones.
The path to problems
There are, to put it mildly, many reasons why someone might develop an eating disorder. When we experience challenges and don’t have the necessary tools to overcome them, we often look outside of ourselves for ways to cope. Eating disorders are one such way.
Eating disorders serve as a maladaptive coping mechanism, providing a false sense of security when we otherwise would feel out of control. They also serve to numb overwhelming emotions, such as anxiety or sadness, by distracting and narrowing our focus onto things like food, calories, clothing size or body weight. Whilst this might sound like eating disorders are all about food and body size, they are in fact a symptom of more complex, underlying causes, serving as a red flag that something isn’t quite right in someone’s life.
Lockdown is a perfect storm for an eating disorder. They thrive in isolation, and the secrecy and shame sufferers often feel can keep them trapped within the cycle of their illness.
A lack of mental stimulation and increased social media use can also lead to preoccupation with food and body image concerns. Covert interventions, such as hanging out with friends or simply going to the workplace, no longer happen, which means that eating disorder behaviours are far less likely to be challenged.
Social media, in particular, has been found to negatively impact children especially hard in lockdown because of the unrealistic ideas of body image it perpetuates. For all of us – children and adults alike – screen time has overtaken the time we would usually spend socialising and meaningfully connecting with others.
All of which means, getting help to those who need it is more important than ever right now. So, what can those struggling with an eating disorder do to protect themselves through these turbulent months?
Talk to someone and remain connected
Eating disorders thrive in isolation, and the experience of lockdown can mimic the experience of an isolating illness. It is vitally important to communicate how you’re feeling and stay connected with loved ones and your support network. Whilst we may feel physically distant, we can reframe our experience and recognise that this is an opportunity to find novel ways to connect.
Create a routine
Eating disorders can seem amplified in down time, so it’s still really important to make a routine and stick to it. Use meals and snacks as the framework for routine and around those markers put in meaningful activities. These activities will look different for everyone – especially so in lockdown – but the more engaging they are, the better, as they will stop your mind from wandering back to food.
Monitor social media use
Our platforms may give the impression of connectedness, but don’t neglect true connection through phone or videos calls and, of course, therapy sessions. Be mindful of where you’re putting your energy and what content you’re consuming online. The messages we receive can develop into narratives that we see the world through, particularly when we have a lot of free time and lack external stimuli.
Tune into your needs
Lots of us engage in self-care activities as a coping mechanism in the face of challenge, however, engaging in these activities daily and not just in the midst of challenge will compound the benefits. For those who struggle with self-care, recognise that you are allowed to look after your wellbeing, even if it doesn’t feel like you’re earning it. This is an opportunity to really challenge the voice of the eating disorder.
Take things moment by moment
The uncertainty of the pandemic has meant that day-dreaming about the future only increases the amount of unknowns and, most likely, our anxiety or stress. Reign in your horizon by focusing on things moment by moment: how are you going to spend your morning? Your afternoon? Keep things relatively close to home as you tune into your needs in the present.
We’ve also got to be kind to ourselves. Things are really tough right now, but finding it tough doesn’t mean that you are failing – it simply means that your eating disorder is being really, really challenged. But recovery isn’t recovery without challenge, and we can reframe our perspective to view these challenges as opportunities to demonstrate our commitment to ourselves.
If you think you might have an eating disorder and want to talk to someone who won’t judge, who understands eating disorders, or who can simply listen, call Orri 0203 918 6340, email: email@example.com or visit the clinic’s website here