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Eating disorders amid the pandemic
Photography i yunmai, via Unsplash

The pandemic can make living with an eating disorder even harder

New research suggests that social distancing and the stress of the crisis is exacerbating symptoms for those suffering

The coronavirus crisis has put unprecedented strain on the world, impacting our mental health in ways we couldn’t have imagined. For those living with an eating disorder, the pandemic has been especially challenging, exacerbating already arduous symptoms.

A new study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, has found that many people suffering with an eating disorder found that their symptoms had been heightened amid lockdown and social distancing measures. Participants also reported an increase in fear and anxiety during the crisis.

Researchers recruited 511 participants from the US and 510 from the Netherlands, and asked them to complete an online survey which inquired about how they were handling the pandemic, and how those experiences were affecting their eating disorder behaviours.

The results found that the impact of COVID-19 differed depending on each individual’s disorder. For example, 62 per cent of US participants with anorexia nervosa reported that they were struggling with food restriction, as well as the fear they wouldn’t be able to access the foods that suit their meal plans. While 30 per cent of US participants with bulimia nervosa said they felt a stronger urge to binge eat, and had experienced more episodes of this during the pandemic.

Many reported that they were struggling with the lack of medical attention, with almost half of those in the US deeming virtual healthcare much worse than face-to-face appointments. Although, some participants did find the move to online care a positive experience, reducing sometimes hours-long travel to their therapist.

Others also reported constructive effects of the pandemic, with some finding that their recovery improved through more social contact with people in their home, or because of the ability to create their own structures.

“The most common concerns we hear range from not being able to carry out normal routines, being unable to access safe foods due to stockpiling and shopping restrictions, having to visit shops out of their comfort zone, worries about binge eating if they or someone they live with is stockpiling, and not being able to exercise if they need to self isolate,” Caroline Price, the director of services at eating disorder charity Beat, tells Dazed.

“It’s more important than ever that those with eating disorders feel supported as they cope with changes in routines, living situations, and care plans – all of which have the potential to be incredibly triggering” – Caroline Price, Beat

“We are also hearing from more service users struggling with feelings of guilt for seeking help,” she continues, “as they feel they are less deserving in the current situation – a myth we are particularly keen to dispel.”

In July, Beat experienced an 81 per cent increase in contact to all its support channels, compared to February this year. The charity also reported a 115 per cent increase in online group attendance, and a 125 per cent increase in social media contact.

In response, Beat has set up The Sanctuary, an online group chat which specifically addresses anxieties around the pandemic. It acts as a safe space for those with eating disorders to share their concerns, as well as advice about how they’re coping during this time.

“It’s more important than ever that those with eating disorders feel supported as they cope with changes in routines, living situations, and care plans – all of which have the potential to be incredibly triggering,” concludes Price. “It is not surprising that we have seen such a large increase in contact, but we are prepared to support anyone unwell and in need of help at this time.”

As well as navigating a global pandemic, those with eating disorders are facing new challenges in the UK as the government ‘cracks down’ on obesity with its dangerous ‘Better Health’ campaign. As part of the strategy, restaurants will be forced to display calories on their menus – something that can be incredibly triggering for those with an eating disorder. 

“We are very concerned that this will have a detrimental impact on people with or at risk of developing an eating disorder,” Beat’s spokesperson Tom Quinn told CNN this week. “We are already starting to hear from people who are very distressed… who think these measures will increase their eating disordered behaviours.”

If you are suffering with an eating disorder, you can contact Beat here, and join The Sanctuary here.