Pandemic perspectives: Is lockdown producing a 'Tsunami' of eating disorders?
It started with being worried that lockdown meant I wouldn’t be able to get my steps in. Plus, with the supermarket shelves barren and the restaurants shut, it seemed to make sense to slim down my portions and save what I could. It always starts so benign, so reasonable that the descent slips upon me silently, an unholy thief in the night. Now, as the dark evenings stretch on, unfilled, the terror of what still lies within me, the impulses I thought I was free from, creeps up with the same stealth.
I’m not the only one who has found my eating becoming disordered since the lockdowns for Covid-19 began. The numbers of young people being referred for urgent treatment has sky-rocketed, as the pandemic has whipped up a perfect storm of triggers for disordered eating: feelings of helplessness, anxiety, fear of scarcity, and distance from loved ones.
People suffering with anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders often seek to control their weight when other parts of their life seem out of control, and there’s nothing like a global pandemic to show you the limits of your mastery.
Restricting calories is also a way of numbing oneself to feelings that seem too overwhelming to process. Not only has Covid-19 unleashed all kinds of emotions – anxiety, dread, grief, sadness, hopelessness, and anger among them – but it has also physically cut us off from our support networks. And although we might be able to talk to our loved ones via any number of screens, it is hard to open up when you know the person on the other end of the line is likely struggling with their own fears, frustrations, and sense of loss as well. Paradoxically, the fact we are all in this together breeds a dangerous kind of self-reliance.
In this context, a thinner body can also be a way of expressing something we don’t feel able to say out loud: ‘help’. If I look more childlike, the ‘logic’ of anorexia runs, maybe someone will come to my rescue, maybe I’ll be offered a way out.
The tragedy of anorexia is that the myth that punishing one’s body provides self-protection is very much a lie. Malnutrition adds to the risks to one’s health, rather than subtracting from them. But it is a lie which I would hate to see anyone shamed for believing. Anxiety about the virus itself, its effects on our society, and what the future might hold has been with us now for over a year. It’s not surprising, then, that we will all try to find ways to make ourselves feel safe.
Eating disorders aren’t ultimately about weight or food – they are an expression of one’s underlying psychological wellbeing, which itself is subject to a whole range of influences beyond the individual. Accordingly, for someone to fully recover, being encouraged to simply change their behaviour around food is not enough. The underlying beliefs, if not properly addressed, are likely to find other incarnations, like binge-purging, self-harm, clinical anxiety and depression.
Unfortunately, where eating disorders have been triggered by Covid-19, the root causes cannot be ousted overnight. But there are at least ways of managing the emotions it has provoked in ways that don’t involve food.
Contacting a GP should be the first port of call as they can provide a referral to local NHS support services for eating disorders. The charity BEAT’s support helpline and online support groups can also help those struggling with eating disorders feel less alone and develop coping strategies for managing the difficult emotions which can trigger disordered eating. These include, for instance: breathing exercises, journaling, calling friends, walking, reading, household chores, arts and crafts, or prayer – all of which can provide a positive distraction from feelings of loneliness, anger and stress.
It is never easy to care for someone with an eating disorder, and at a time like this, seeing someone you love suffer with a mental illness can feel like just another thing you cannot easily fix, on top of the pandemic. In my experience, the greatest gift you can provide is a non-judgmental space where the person you are supporting feels able to explore the causes of their difficult relationship with food and their day-to-day struggles.
Anorexia often comes wrapped up with feelings of worthlessness, so every signal you send that they are loved unconditionally, and that what they are experiencing is not the result of some psychological (or spiritual) defect, will build up their ability to treat themselves with self-compassion. Knowing that one lives in love is very much the ultimate safeguard against punishing one’s body using food.
As much as that transforming love ultimately comes from God, I have always relied on those around me to embody it, before I could feel confident that God would not be perturbed by my mental illness, or disappointed with me for needing more than devotionals and Bible-readings to recover. The internalised voice of anorexia is highly judgmental and isolating, relishing in telling me that I am beyond the reach of grace, and that my illness has created a dividing wall from God. Rebutting that voice requires tangible demonstrations that I am seen and understood and loved in spite of all the things I wish I could change about myself.
Having experienced that from my friends and family helps me to imagine that God is not looking upon me with judgment but tenderness, and to start to trust Him as my true stronghold and refuge. So, by all means, if you are caring for someone with an eating disorder, remind them of the unfailing love of God – but personify it more readily than you verbalise it.
Anorexia thrives off isolation – under the cover of darkness, its lies burgeon and blossom. So, I’m not surprised that diagnoses of eating disorders are surging under lockdown, when it is easy to feel lost and forgotten. But the light at the end of the tunnel is drawing close; and in the love and steadfastness and gentleness of God, incarnated in those who care for people struggling with mental illness, there are strong enough flickers to guide the rest of the way.
Florence became a Christian when she was 18 after her life was turned upside down by a serious eating disorder. Her debut book, Lessons I Have Unlearned: Because Life Doesn’t Look Like It Did In The Pictures will be published by John Hunt in June.
Florence Gildea, 01/03/2021