Canadians are well-weathered at facing dark, long, cold winters, but for most of us the next few months may look particularly difficult and lonely. For individuals struggling with eating disorders, the isolation and stress of a winter in lockdown can be especially challenging, as it may trigger symptoms. Individuals with eating disorders often find themselves using ED behaviours to give themselves a feeling of control, and if COVID-19 has done nothing else, it has stripped a sense of personal agency from our day-to-day lives. According to Aryel Maharaj, education and outreach coordinator at the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) in Toronto, calls to the centre’s helpline have been 45 percent higher than average since the pandemic began started, but in October, they were were 75 percent higher, with a 90 percent increase in support calls (for information, referrals, or just to talk).
For those who struggle with eating disorders, there are steps and strategies to help manage symptoms and reduce triggers. Here are some suggestions:
Know the signs—and acknowledge them
It may be difficult to acknowledge that eating disorder symptoms or habits from which you have recovered are returning during the pandemic. In addition to being empathetic towards yourself, it’s important to acknowledge that you’re struggling. Early warning signs might be compulsive exercising, obsessive food-intake monitoring or skipping meals, though these vary significantly from person to person. “The main aim sometimes with that initial anxiety is to try to sit with and tolerate that distress,” says Maharaj. In other words, don’t ignore early warning signs: try instead to be mindful of your thoughts and behaviours, and consider why or how you may be experiencing them at this time, in order to better understand how to work through them.
Be kind to yourself
This year has been a rough ride overall; there was no guidebook for the unprecedented personal challenges faced by many over the course of 2020. If the stresses of the past 12 months have triggered ED symptoms for you, try to exercise self-forgiveness and self-compassion—and know that struggling during this time doesn’t make you weak, or signify failure. “We’ve had clients say ‘I’m feeling really out of control of my life circumstances right now. I don’t know about school, I don’t know about work. I don’t know about my family. And so I think I can control eating and weight,’” Maharaj says. “We always validate the fact that it makes lots of sense, during this period of uncertainty and instability, you’re relying more on your ED thoughts and behaviours. If this is an old thing that’s coming back up, know that it coming back up doesn’t invalidate your recovery to date.”
Change your online habits
Social media can be harmful to individuals with eating disorders, particularly millennials and Gen Y-ers, who are not only more likely to engage with social media, but to consider it a vital part of their life and identity. And during the pandemic, messaging about avoiding weight gain due to gym closures has become especially prevalent: gyms are advertising ways to avoid COVID weight gain, while individual users and influencers often post their daily workout routines for engagement. Actively modify what’s visible to you on social media by filtering for specific topics or hashtags that you find triggering, such as content that’s focused on fitness or weight loss. “The pandemic has limited participation in things like in-person workouts, where there is a social aspect, as well as a set stop time,” says Jennifer Cohelo, a B.C. psychologist who specializes in eating disorders among children and adolescents. “And posts about weight management, which are ultimately intended to be about healthy behaviour, can be triggering.” You can also reach out to friends and family you trust who are posting content that you find triggering, and request that they abstain from sharing such content, or let them know that you’ll be hiding or muting their content going forward because you find it harmful. This might help to open up a conversation with loved ones about how you are currently struggling, and how they might help.
Lean on your support network
Not everyone has a strong personal support network, and even among those who do, it might feel more difficult than ever to connect in intimate, meaningful ways. But seeking support from people you trust and love can be instrumental in helping you manage your eating disorder symptoms. Share a meal with a friend via Zoom on a regular basis, for instance, or ask people you share your home space with to work on meal planning with you. If you’re not responsible for grocery shopping in your household, let those who are know that you have some specific food items that you’d like to have around more regularly.
Reach out for professional help
Managing recovery or symptoms from home may seem impossible without the in-person professional support that you might otherwise have been accustomed to. “One of our primary concerns right now is that in-person evaluation still needs to continue when necessary,” Cohelo says. There are many ways to find specialists providing in-person care at this time, including via the NEDIC website, though these options are more limited right now due to COVID-19 precautions. NEDIC’s helpline is open Monday to Friday and staffed by volunteers, and other online support groups, such as the Looking Glass Foundation, offer online peer support and have ramped up their digital efforts during the pandemic.
If you’re living with or close to someone who has an eating disorder, you may not be sure how to offer support. Before you reach out, get informed. The resources listed above also offer information for those whose loved ones are struggling with eating disorders. Make sure to check your own behaviours or attitudes about food and weight: don’t to moralize about food or demonize weight gain when you reach out. And remember that a person is not just their eating disorder: “Affirm their abilities that have nothing to do with food or weight or appearance,” Maharaj suggests. “And encourage them to participate in the types of things that you might normally do together, like watching a movie, playing a board game or going for a walk.” Use “I” statements to express your concern, such as “I’ve noticed you’re acting differently,” or “I’m worried about you,” rather than “you” statements that may feel accusatory. You can’t force a loved one to get help, but you can let them know that you’re available for support, if and when it’s needed.