While self isolation can take a toll on anyone’s mental health, those recovering from eating disorders are experiencing a particularly difficult time.
Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating, are part of a number of mental health challenges that are being exacerbated during this time of anxiety and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Meghan Freeman, a counselor with Abundant Life Partners in Williamsburg, said many of her patients who have eating disorders are having to find new ways to cope with their disorder.
“Their disorder is their go-to during times of stress,” Freeman said. “They use it when they’re experiencing uncomfortable emotions, so it makes sense they would go back to that place.”
When talking to patients with eating disorders, Freeman said it’s important to help them understand that whatever they’re feeling isn’t wrong and that it’s okay to be confused or anxious. During telehealth sessions, she said patients learn how to look at their emotions non-judgmentally and understand that things are different for many people.
“You don’t have to ‘fix’ every feeling,” she said. “Because part of eating disorder behaviors is trying to fix your feelings. It’s okay to feel what you feel.”
Freeman said validating those emotions help clients understand the difference between normal responses to a pandemic and responses associated with their disorder. A lot of these emotions can remind people with eating disorders of times when their disorder first originated.
But Freeman said it’s also difficult because many of the coping methods, such as being social and productive, are no longer an option due to social distancing guidelines.
“Even just distractions are hard to find,” she said. “They’re stuck at home with their own brain and thoughts, which leaves a door open for those eating disorder thoughts to come in.”
Freeman said she’s been talking to patients about going back to basics, such as creating a structured meal plan and avoiding social media, which can be a trigger to many recovering.
Freeman said social media can perpetuate eating disorders because people post about unhealthy aspects of diet culture. But during this time of boredom, staying off social media is more difficult than ever.
To distract themselves, Freeman commonly recommends clients go outside and move their bodies in a healthy way.
Following structured meal plans has also become more difficult as grocery stores have limited options on what’s available. For someone with an eating disorder, this can be extremely distressing because they rely on a set schedule.
“I try to help people see it as a time to grow because we don’t have as much access to the fresh fruits and vegetables we would prefer,” she said. “So it’s a challenge to those food rules but it puts things into perspective.”
Freeman said all those added stressors and changes can push people over the edge to relapse. If that happens, she said they discuss how it’s a normal response and try to use this time to continue to build resilience in their recovery.
“It’s about getting ready for the eating disorder voice in your head to get louder,” she said. “Any opportunity of increased weakness can be a time for the disorder to attack.”
To help prevent relapses, Freeman said it’s important to patients to build a support system of accountability. While people can’t necessarily see each other regularly, they can still keep in touch with their loved ones through phone and video messaging.
“Right now, it’s about teaching the bigger importance of just what you eat,” she said. “It’s about discussing where we want to be when this is all over. Deeper in our disorder or further in recovery?”