Here’s what to do if COVID-19 is triggering your eating disorder, according to experts

Warning: This article discusses eating disorders, anorexia, and body dysmorphic disorder.

Isolation and quarantine are dredging up many emotions right now. Loneliness, fear, and the looming cloud of an unknown future are all trickling into our daily lives. But for those recovering from or coping with eating disorders, the amount of disruption can be especially triggering.

If you’re one of these people, please know you’re not alone and that it’s valid to be triggered right now. We’re living in weird times, and eating disorders generally thrive in isolation. According to associate marriage and family therapist Lindsey Cooper-Berman, it’s estimated that “20 million women and 10 million men in the U.S.A. will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives.” Cooper-Berman also stresses that the impact of an ED goes significantly past the food, and that “there is almost always shame, guilt, self-criticism, and/or self-hate” involved.

Despite these numbers, eating disorders are frighteningly private diseases. Plus, many recovery programs encourage routine and structure as a vital part of healing—something that, for many, has been tossed out the window due to lockdowns and the closure of non-essential businesses. A person might also feel triggered by the increased conversations surrounding food, or the onslaught of the “Quarantine 15” memes.

While made in jest, these memes contribute to our nation’s problem with fatphobia by insinuating that weight gain is a bad thing.

The lack of human interaction or touch can be incredibly triggering for some individuals, especially those for whom physical touch or quality time are their love languages. Molly Carmel, LCSW-R and founder of The Beacon Program, notes that “when we feel a lack of true human connection, people, especially those with a history of disordered eating, may turn to overeat food or other ED behaviors—restriction, chewing and spitting, overexercising, purging, etc.—to cope.”

Eating disorders are a nuanced mental illness—those who’ve experienced them understand that it complicates their relationships with food. They may debate how much to eat, when to eat, when to stop eating, etc. While having a pantry filled with food is indeed a blessing, it can be anxiety-inducing to a person who’s healing from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or other kinds of eating disorders. In many cases, those with eating disorders control food in order to deal with other issues, like trauma, low self-esteem, depression, or anxiety.

“The reality is eating disorders really aren’t just about the food,” says Cooper-Berman. “It’s a way to handle stress that, at some point, worked…until it stopped working.”

But while the combination of isolation, lack of structure, and increased conversation surrounding food and eating are all potentially triggering, there are things you can do to make it easier on yourself. We spoke to the experts to provide the tips below:

Intentionally implement self-care practices into your routine

This is objectively a difficult time and self-care has never been more important. This means really allowing yourself to do things that feel nourishing to your mind, soul, and body, like taking long baths to make you feel warm and beautiful or doing long meditation sessions to ease your mind. But you could also do something completely outside the stereotypical realm of self-care, like watching episodes of Parks and Rec, re-reading Harry Potter, or dancing to ’90s music videos with your roommates. 

And while it’s certainly important to stay informed, be aware of how much news and social media you’re consuming. Checking for updates about coronavirus (COVID-19) can be quite nerve-racking, and not always beneficial. It’s good to stay informed, but not at the cost of your mental health. Try to stick to trusted news sources and consider putting parameters on how much you read and when you tune in. 

“If you’re feeling triggered by the memes, acknowledge that,” says Lindsey Hall, eating disorder advocate and author of the award-winning blog I Haven’t Shaved in Six Weeks. “It’s not a slight to your recovery…The question becomes: What can we do with these triggers? For me, maybe it’s choosing to read it in the lens of diet culture, and understand that people live in fear, and I am so grateful that I don’t have that fear guiding my life anymore.”

Build your own structure

In addition to implementing more self-care routines, you might find it beneficial to create structure or schedules surrounding other daily activities. 

“Having routines and scheduled activities to look forward to can establish a sense of normalcy and comfort—not to mention keep you away from unhelpful habits and behaviors,” adds Carmel. These routines might include a designated time to shower, meditate, or have a FaceTime session with loved ones. 

“Also, creating a schedule around what you’re eating and when you’re eating can be very helpful in quieting eating-disordered thoughts and behaviors,” says Carmel. “For binge-eaters, evidence shows that meal regulation is helpful in decreasing episodes.”

Notice how you’re talking to yourself

When we talk about self care, most of us tend to think of what we’re doing externally (like some of the examples listed above), but it’s equally important to consider internal methods of self care, like how you talk to yourself. For instance, are your thoughts kind and compassionate? Or are you lingering on “shoulds” and “what ifs”? (i.e., I should be doing a harder workout class.)

“Explore what is really coming up,” Cooper-Berman says. “What’s behind the food or body obsession?”

One way that we can increase control over these thoughts is to implement a daily mindfulness practice. Meditation apps (like Calm or Headspace) offer short mindfulness exercises that are easy to slide into your daily routine. Walks and yoga sessions are also great ways to get out of your head and into your body—helping alleviate any spirals that may feel as though they’re consuming your mental bandwidth.

Write it out

“Write about this time,” Hall adds. “Because one day you’ll wish you had recorded what it was like to live through this. Remind yourself that we’re on this planet to live, and with living comes situations like this one. It’s part of the human experience.”

In other words, this is a strange and unique time in human history. It’s okay that you feel triggered, and writing about those feelings (whether it’s a journal entry or a letter to a friend) is an actionable way for you to collect and understand your feelings. If writing isn’t your strong suit, simply acknowledging the thoughts by speaking them out loud can also be incredibly powerful.

“Say, ‘Right now I am having ED thoughts,’” says Cooper-Berman. “You are not the eating disorder that you have or are struggling with. Separating the ED voice from who you are can help to break some of the control it has over you.”

Find community and connection

Just because we’re told to socially distance doesn’t mean it’s impossible to reach out and connect with others. Reach out to trusted loved ones, or talk to a therapist via video conferencing, phone, or FaceTime. Digital communities can also be extremely helpful during this time; trying searching hashtags #EDrecovery or #EDsurvivor to connect with others who might be able to relate to your struggle. Cooper-Berman stresses the importance of talking to someone who you feel will understand and provide solace. 

“Talk to a supportive friend or family member,” Cooper-Berman says. “Please don’t call a person [who] will feed into the ED thoughts.”

There are also a ton of online resources, such as the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) and the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), which has a slew of articles and even hotlines available for those in need of immediate connection. (NEDA also has a texting line, in case you feel more comfortable doing it that way).

Remember your strength

While it’s completely okay to feel triggered during this time, just know that recovery is a process and it’s never something you should beat yourself up for. And don’t let anyone tell you differently.

“For many of us, one of the blessings of this experience is really getting to witness how far we’ve come in recovery,” says Hall. “It’s been really powerful to see how far I’ve come in terms of being able to handle all this with the strength and perspective that comes from years in recovery. I can handle this chaos because I have handled my own personal chaos that anorexia and eating disorders brought into my life. And that’s a really empowering feeling.” 

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please visit the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) for more information and support, or text “NEDA” to 741-741.