Advice for those struggling with an eating disorder during COVID-19

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Give voice to your feelings

“I’m struggling.”

If you’re struggling with your eating disorder right now, say that out loud. Say it so others can hear it and so you can hear it. Say, “Maybe I’m not okay. Maybe this situation is affecting me more than I care to admit. It’s hard—really hard—and I’m terrified it will always be.”

If your eating disorder feels silly, insignificant, or selfish in the wake of the coronavirus, you can say that. If you’re afraid the crisis will ruin the progress you’ve made in recovery, say that. If you’re hurt or annoyed by jokes about quarantine binges. . . or convinced you should “save” food for the uncertain future. . . or, frankly, more worried about weight gain than about contracting the virus itself. . . say these things.

If you’re finding eating disorder urges increasingly hard to white knuckle, let someone know. Acknowledge your fears and communicate your anxieties about recovery. These feelings are normal. Give them a voice and give them legitimacy. Put them into words.

Put them into words so you don’t need to wear them on your body. You don’t need to “prove” that you’re struggling. Your struggle is already enough. It’s real.

This global struggle does not negate your personal one. It’s worth spelling out: An eating disorder is an illness entirely separate from the coronavirus, and even a pandemic cannot “cancel out” or cure it. Our shared anxiety about the health and safety of our world’s people, economy, and social systems does not make your eating disorder any less serious.

Your eating disorder struggle and your recovery still matter.

What your eating disorder may be telling you

Your disorder may be using this opportunity to elbow its way back into your life. Capitalizing on uncertainty and fear is its signature trick, one it does insidiously and incessantly.

In its abusive way, your disorder may code-switch between enemy and ally. It may bully and seduce, its voice seemingly supportive at times while disparaging and cruel at others.

  • “No school, no work? Well, this quarantine is your chance to lose weight!”
  • “Soon there will be no food left. You better eat all of this now. . .”
  • “You know, no one will blame you for relapsing during this.”
  • “Look around—I’m the only one here when things get rough.”
  • “This is a hard time. No big deal if you restrict, binge, or purge. Why don’t you ‘relax’ for a bit? You can get back to recovery once this thing passes over.”

How COVID-19 may challenge eating disorder recovery

The master manipulator it is, your eating disorder can mold any situation into a reason to use ED behaviors. And there is no shortage of reasons during this COVID-19 emergency.

Changes in routine and environment

Your everyday life may look different lately. Most of ours do.

Maybe you’re suddenly back at your parents’ home, ejected from a college rhythm of campus meals, casual movement, and social support. Perhaps it’s the environment where you first engaged in disordered behaviors, a place that stirs up tangled memories or old family dynamics.

Maybe you’ve retreated to your own space. Your kitchen table has replaced your cube and the background noise is kid footsteps, groans, and a barking dog. You move from your couch to your recliner to your bed. Back to your couch. Here your breaks are not water-cooler conversations but rather social media scrolls, a very obvious reminder of how “not normal” this life is.

It is not ideal.

And for those who typically protect their recovery by leaving the house, finding space from the fridge and pantry and private bathrooms, it may be unbelievably triggering.

Try to build some structure into your days. Plan times to eat and work and rest. Write down these plans; make sure you see them. Set them as your phone wallpaper, or tack a copy beside each clock in your home. Stick to them.

Set alarms for your meal and snack times. Have ready your activities for before and afterward.

Plaster your walls with motivational post-its. “You deserve freedom” or “recovery is possible”—whatever mantra resonates. These truths are still true, just as true now as when you started healing.

Changes in social interaction

Socially distant from friends, acquaintances, coworkers, or customers, we’re now seeing casual company less—and those who share our homes, more.

If you live alone, your eating disorder may be cartwheeling over the fact that there are fewer people to “watch” whether you’re eating or “catch” you bingeing or purging. Leverage technology to help you challenge this isolation. Invite your friends and families to Skype meals, or FaceTime and Zoom snacks. Maybe schedule calls immediately after eating. Intentionally seek out virtual company for these particularly vulnerable moments.

If you live with a partner, family, or roommate, your eating disorder is likely threatened by their presence. Use this support to your advantage. Show your loved ones the sly ways your eating disorder is trying to creep back in. Ask them for a knowing smile or patient look or whenever you’re “not hungry” or “already ate.” Let them help you outwit this thing.

Changes in food patterns

COVID-19 has not only sparked chatter about food stockpiles and shortages, but has significantly changed the current food landscape. Many restaurants are closed and grocery shelves are bare, contributing to a scarcity mindset that prompts even those without eating disorders to stock up on the food they can access.

For those with eating disorders, extra food in the house is often a trigger. Your full pantry may feel like a taunt, a squealing siren you cannot ignore. It may contain significantly more food than you’re comfortable with at this stage of recovery, a supply you’d otherwise limit in order to prevent a binge.

This food may not feel safe. Like it’s too much, or not your go-to staples. Rice and pasta instead of spinach and yogurt. Frozen pizza instead of deli turkey. Milk instead of Diet Coke.

In the midst of things going on, you probably do not feel “ready” to challenge your food rules. You likely feel quite the opposite—out of control.

What can you control in this situation? If the amount of food in the house is overwhelming, can you keep it somewhere less accessible? Perhaps in your car, your basement, or behind a cabinet flagged with a recovery affirmation.

When you can’t choose the food selection, what can you choose? Maybe the table’s conversation topic, or the music you’ll listen to afterward.

As unready and incapable as you may feel, you can make progress in this situation. There are still things within your control here.

Changes in exercise patterns 

Maybe you were okay with the closures and cancellations until your gym was affected. You figured you could work or study from home, and use exercise as a break or escape.

Perhaps these exercise plans were rooted in disordered hopes to “get fit” during the quarantine. Or maybe you were simply ready to make use of a coping tool that serves you and your recovery.

In either case, gym closures are affecting many of those with eating disorders. Whether you find yourself navigating a relationship with exercise that’s proving more disordered than you thought, or just struggling to find a substitute for healthy movement, it’s hard.

But your exercise routine can wait.

Remember that your body is working whether you’re exercising or not. It’s working when you’re productive and when you’re not. It’s fighting to keep you alive and well, always, and needs fuel for its most everyday functions.

If you are looking to incorporate movement into your new routine, do it in a gentle spirit of self-care and compassion. Maybe you dance—six feet away—from your roommates, or you practice yoga from home. Maybe you take a walk while chatting with a friend. Make sure any movement supports your recovery.

Changes in treatment

If you’re currently receiving treatment for an eating disorder, don’t skip appointments and don’t quit. You need professional support now more than ever. Eating disorder treatment is an essential medical service, and programs are carrying on during this COVID-19 crisis.

Treatment might look a little different. If your provider is continuing to offer in-person services, there will likely be new protocols set up to keep you safe during care. Some providers, like The Emily Program, are also implementing telehealth programs that allow you to receive outpatient and intensive treatment for your eating disorder via video chats, virtual meals, and online yoga sessions. Talk to your treatment provider to learn about the options available to you.

Remember why recovery is important to you

Your eating disorder will always try to find reasons to use disordered behaviors. There were reasons before COVID-19, and there will be reasons after.

But the reasons to recover are here as well. They always are.

Sit with the messy, contradictory, full-fledged human feelings you’re feeling now. Meet the pain, confusion, boredom, and anxiety. Watch them dim, eventually, maybe even leave. Watch hope come back.

Hope will come back.

If you are experiencing worsening eating disorder symptoms in the wake of COVID-19, you are not alone. The Emily Program is committed to continue offering eating disorder care in these challenging times. For help, reach us online or by calling 1-888-364-5977.

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