“Stay at Home” Unexpected Triggers for People with Eating Disorders

Written By: Judy Lemke, MS, LPC, LCSW

Staying home can make it increasingly challenging to manage stress-eating and bingeing.  Staying at home forces a person with an eating disorder to resist unhealthy behaviors as much as he/she can in the place where it is the easiest to happen.   

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA ) * approximately 20 million women and 10 million men in the U.S. have a clinically significant eating disorder.  “Disordered eating”, a more general term that describes unhealthy behaviors around food, such as yo-yo dieting or feeling out of control around food, is significantly more prevalent.   The steps being taken to fight Coronavirus ad COVID-19 are likely to trigger eating issues in a lot of people, even those who just have a complicated relationship with food.   For those who have been struggling with a silent internal fight in “normal times”, it is harder now and being stuck at home is a big part of the problem.  

 As we all know and hopefully agree, physical /social distancing is necessary to avoid the spread of COVID-19. That very distancing step can be disastrous for those struggling with all types of mental health issues and eating disorders are no exception.   

Eating disorders thrive in isolation   Eating disorders thrive on anything relating to rules.  The very real precautions that we are needing to take – staying away from people, restaurants closing, people hoarding food ( and toilet paper 😊) can also be a perfect environment to re-engage behaviors that an individual has worked so hard to overcome.    The anxiety of being still and having large quantities of free and unstructured time can lead to an increase in disordered thoughts, behaviors (actions) and obsessions which can be very difficult to control, especially when there are no distractions or interventions.    It comes then, as no surprise, that people with eating disorders may be having a very difficult time right now.  

 

 

People with eating disorders tend to be more rigid and become anxious with flexibility.   Having carefully structured coping routines suddenly interrupted is almost a guaranteed trigger.  People are now restricted from numerous activities which they might have been dependent on as coping mechanisms, such as exercise, support groups and treatment providers.  

One other aspect of the “Stay at Home” restrictions to consider is while not being able to find toilet paper is inconvenient, empty grocery aisles can be an alarming trigger for those in recovery.  It can trigger significant anxiety.   Think about it.  When toilet paper and hand sanitizer appeared to be scarce, some people began hoarding and stockpiling it. The same thing happens when we think or tell ourselves that a certain food is off limits.  For some, the perception of food becoming scarce can lead to compulsive eating or binge eating later on.   Many of the foods which has being loaded into pantries and freezers typically tend to be the ones which people with eating disorders fear:  processed, packaged, and frozen.  If having a narrow range of foods which they are able to eat comfortably, than anxiety happens when those preferred foods cannot be found.    A person with an eating disorder may have to tackle their fear of higher calorie, energy dense shelf stable foods, such as pasta and rice to keep food in their kitchen.  Those same stockpiled items can increase anxiety and be a trigger for binge eating.  

Many people in recovery use movement as an outlet for stress and anxiety.  Closed gyms, cancelled exercise classes and restricted outdoor areas just amplify the need to do something with those feelings.  The guilt and anxiety associated with inactivity can be intense, along with the worry of weight gain.   

 

Fear is a natural response to what is going on in the world right now.  Perhaps the best approach is facing anxiety head on with a self-care checklist based on practices that have proven success.    

 

 

 

 

  1.  Get at least hours 8 of sleep.  Stick to a sleep schedule.  
  1. Fill up your water bottle (with water) several times a day to stay hydrated.  
  1. Eat well to support energy and immunity. Focus on a balanced diet.  
  1. Do yoga at home.  Follow exercise classes via live streaming.  
  1. Walk or run outside daily but keep your distance. Consider driving out to a rural area to walk in the country, away from popular parks, etc.   
  1. Use a meditation app.  Many are now being offered “fee free” and can be fine tuned to what fits for you.  
  1. Connect with family and friends on FaceTime, WhatsApp, etc.  
  1. Do something crafty/creative or brainy, such as puzzles, games, sewing, coloring, or any other screen-free hobby.  
  1. Dance.  Get active.  Turn up the music and sing.  Release your musical aspirations.  
  1.  Enjoy a number of “virtual tours” of museums, Broadway plays, exhibits, etc.  
  1. Host a virtual cocktail party, game night, Netflix watch parties. 

The important point here is to keep up as much of your normal routines and previous life as possible.  

If self-care is not enough, please consider reaching out for help.  If you are not sure if you need help, ask yourself if most of your brain space is being taken up with thoughts of food, weight, or exercise.  If so, then it’s time to seek help. For people with eating disorders in particular, asking for help can be very, very difficult.  A classic belief of eating disorders is “I have no needs, and I don’t want to bother anyone”.  But your needs do matter and people care about you.  

     Here are a few ways to reach out:  

 

 

 

 

If you have a therapist or treatment team, keep in touch with them virtually.  If someone is in recovery, it is essential to maintain contact with their treatment team.  The team typically consists of a primary care physician, nutritionist, nurse and behavioral health therapist.   Most therapists and programs are offering online and /or through telephone sessions/contacts.   

If you don’t have a therapist, consider getting one.  Many treatment centers and providers are running virtual support groups and therapy groups now due to the “Stay at Home” protocol.   If group settings are not your thing, then seek out a therapist to be see individually.   Other options are services such as Crisis Text Line and the NEDA Helpline who can provide support and ideas for next steps.  It is important to connect with others with shared experiences and/or knowledge.  Consider reaching out to others via Instagram DM on their account@ the chain or join them on their newly added private Discord channel.  

Above all, be honest with yourself.  We all have needs and that’s okay.  You are human and we are all in this together. 

This blog is intended to be the first of an ongoing supportive and educational format exploring the challenges of living with an eating disorder. Readers are encouraged to share thoughts, their experiences, suggestions and resources by email or on our Facebook page.  

Behavioral Health Clinic of Wausau and Plover is actively providing online therapy to new and existing clients.  Please call the office at 715-842-9500 or email the agency at www.bhcwausau.com 

 

               Stay safe, keep your distance and wash your hands!