How to Cope with Disordered Eating During Social Distancing

With the COVID-19 pandemic rattling the world, most of us have been suddenly forced to practice social distancing and stay in with only ourselves, our thoughts, and of course, social media. For anyone struggling with addiction, self-isolation can be especially triggering, and disordered eating might be exacerbated during this time.

Think of it like how the holidays can be triggering for those with eating disorders – except instead of the most wonderful time of the year, it’s a global crisis. In a time where anxiety and unease are just as contagious as the virus, it is human nature to turn to things we can control when the world outside feels out of control.

Research shows that at least 1 in 10 Americans have had an eating disorder at some point in their life, which can include, but is not limited to, anorexia (restricting), binge eating (overeating), bulimia (bingeing and purging), orthorexia (obsession over “healthy” eating), and even crash dieting habits. It’s difficult to ever fully recover from an eating disorder, so social distancing is a true test of self-soothing and coping mechanisms.​

disordered eating pandemic

Disordered eating triggers

For those struggling with anorexia or who are in recovery, they might use social distancing as an excuse to avoid grocery stores and therefore eating. People struggling with bulimia or binge eating disorder may binge with the abundance of food they suddenly have in their homes. Those with orthorexia might be triggered by suddenly stocking up on non-perishables such as processed, canned, and frozen foods which are often deemed “bad” foods. Grocery and food delivery may be a luxury of comfort and control, but it isn’t always possible.

Any disruption to routine can seem catastrophic – with one “bad” eating choice, it can feel like a domino effect to more self-harming behaviors.

Exercise addiction triggers

Even though we’re still able to walk and run, gyms and studios have closed their doors and are forcing people to shake up their workout routine at home. Since many fitness professionals have recently lost their jobs, there is a (borderline overwhelming) abundance of live workouts on social media, as well as push-up challenges galore. Naturally, we might feel pretty pressured to workout, often coupled with negative talk around body image.
We are incentivized to meet daily step goals with our wearable devices and publicly share our workouts. Without that small dosage of dopamine as a reward for being active, it can be easier to give into negative thoughts about self-worth, causing a destructive cycle. 

So how do we help ourselves?

Eating disorders are often about control, so some sense of structure will help minimize triggers and feelings of unease. Try to stick with regular mealtimes and some sense of routine to maintain as much normalcy in our daily lives. How would we parent ourselves? At the beginning of each week, maybe make a daily lunch menu for yourself!

Also, try to avoid naming foods “good” and “bad.” By neutralizing our food, we can remove a lot of the shame that comes with eating disorders. Even non-perishables can be part of a balanced diet. 

With any structure, though, we must be gentle. Maybe we take off our beeping watches, or we self-soothe in other ways like coloring, taking a bath, solving a puzzle, or lying on the floor listening to moody music to contemplate the meaning of life that way we did in middle school. We’re all being forced to get creative with our free time, so we can experiment with what feels good and fun, and what doesn’t.And, of course, journaling can help to name the feelings that arise. When are we anxious, frustrated, overwhelmed, sad, scared, or numbing? Writing down what we are grateful for can also remind us how much is still in our control.

Oh right, other people…

We cannot control how other people act, but we can control who we allow into our personal bubbles. If you see someone post memes or jokes that are triggering, mute or unfollow them. Humor might be a way for someone else to cope with their own body image, but it doesn’t have to be the way we all cope. Set your boundaries IRL and online.

Everyone is desperate for small talk, so don’t be afraid to come ready with your own conversation starters to avoid the inevitable topics of the news and food. And if uncomfortable with a virtual lunch or dinner, suggest another social interaction like a coffee break or walking on the phone. Remember, it’s really physical distancing – not isolation!We all need community and connection now more than ever, and now might be the time many of us feel forced to “do the work,” whether we’re ready or not. Don’t hesitate to reach out to friends and loved ones – we’re all in this together during these weird, weird times. Although it seems like it will never end, this too shall pass. Take it one day at a time!

Virtual therapy and telemedicine for psychiatric care are becoming more readily available, there are online support groups, and you can always call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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About Mary Kesinger

Mary is a marketing specialist, a fitness trainer, and a writer. After studying at Loyola University Chicago, she started her professional journey freelancing with startups, and now most of her time is spent in the corporate world of tech. She published her first book in 2018, Run My World, and she's currently writing her second novel. She teaches strength and HIIT classes, and you can find her frequenting dance classes as well as shamelessly mastering TikTok dances.