Why the coronavirus self-quarantine can be triggering for people with eating disorders

The coronavirus self-quarantine may be triggering for people with eating disorders. (Photo: Getty Images)
The coronavirus self-quarantine may be triggering for people with eating disorders. (Photo: Getty Images)

People around the world are restructuring their daily lives to adapt to the new normal of social distancing and isolation as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. And while some people are managing to make the best of it, using the time at home to reorganize, eat healthier foods or take extra time to exercise, others — particularly those with or in recovery from eating disorders — are finding that the constant reminders to do so are triggering them to fall into unhealthy habits.

It’s particularly the emphasis placed on scarce food supplies at stores, the closure of gyms, and the constant proximity to food while stuck at home that are making already-difficult relationships with food and exercise worse. That’s especially true when conversations around these subjects are framed in ways that make light of them, such as with memes circulating on social media about panic buying and the temptation to binge or restrict.

“They’re negative and damaging for everyone,” Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), says of the flippant comments. “Especially at this time when people who do have personal experience with eating disorders are experiencing such heightened anxiety and are at such higher risk for eating disorder behavior and thought.”

Mysko notes that, while the perpetuation of diet culture on social media is certainly nothing new, it becomes more harmful when coupled with the added triggers of isolation and uncertainty that have come with the pandemic.

But it’s not just the jokes made directly about food or weight loss and gain that are impacting those dealing with eating disorders. It’s also the seemingly helpful suggestions about how to best utilize your time at home, get your body moving and create a structured routine that can be triggering to many whose eating orders stem from a desire for control and perfectionism.

“There’s a lot of pressure right now,” Mysko tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “A feeling of, OK we’re all inside, so we have to make sure we’re continuing to move our bodies and managing how we’re eating, and maybe now’s the time to re-organize all of our drawers and closets and write that novel. Use the time the best we can and make sure we’re staying ‘healthy’ and enriching our lives in this new reality. And I think for people with eating disorders, there’s already such a significant portion of our population that struggles with a sense of perfectionism and doing things the ‘right’ way.”

As Jennifer Rollin, an eating disorder therapist and founder of the Eating Disorder Center, also points out, “Eating disorders love isolation to spread.”

The therapist took part in a Facebook live stream on Tuesday for the NEDA “Connections” video series, aimed at providing people recovering from eating disorders or in treatment with a support system during a time when social distancing has made that hard. There, she explained that the coronavirus has led to “the perfect storm of factors for people to be triggered,” including the restrictive lifestyle, the emotions that come with this, and the part of the brain that turns to destructive behaviors in order to cope, simply out of habit.

Rollin also created a list of reminders in order to combat these triggers, as NEDA does its part in maintaining the connections that are so important for individuals who might be struggling.

Beat Eating Disorders, based in the UK, has also done extensive outreach to address those same triggers, with a resource page dedicated to eating disorders and the coronavirus.

“People with eating disorders may be finding the current crisis particularly difficult. Isolation, loss of routine, and impacted treatment services, as well as worries around food availability and stockpiling, can all exacerbate someone’s eating disorder,” a Beat spokesperson tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We encourage people to make use of the resources available to them — the support network around them, positive distraction techniques, and information and services like Beat’s.”

Mysko explains that the virtual resources currently being offered by NEDA — including daily online sessions to connect and reflect — are just a part of an effort to reframe the ideas of isolation and social distancing, which can be worrisome for a community that’s dependent on connection. “We’re just going to find new ways to keep that community alive and keep everyone connected right now,” she says.

Along the way, she suggests people stay mindful of what other content they’re consuming — whether it be limiting the amount of news that they read or curating social media feeds to be a safe space. Most importantly, many in the community have tried to stress that the current state of things will not last forever, and people should give themselves the freedom to deal with their stress and emotions without feeling shame.

“This is temporary,” Rollin said in the livestream. “This is not going to last forever.”

In the meantime, Mysko ensures that NEDA’s helpline and click-to-chat service on the site will remain open, and encourages people to reach out to get support.

If you or someone you know is at risk or experiencing an eating disorder, resources are available through NEDA or contact their phone helpline at 1-800-931-2237, their live click-to-chat or their text crisis line by texting "NEDA" to 741741.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.