There was a time I believed what I ate and how much I weighed were inextricably woven into my worth, a time when an event like this pandemic would have certainly pushed me deeper into my disordered eating patterns.
I have now been recovered from disordered eating for over a decade and can more easily identify the traps and patterns I used to fall into. The negative thoughts about food and my body that used to incessantly spiral in my mind have silenced, but unfortunately those thoughts still plague many of us today.
Disordered eating is complex, and there are genetic, environmental, and societal factors that play into its development. For some people it starts by going on a diet, for others it is spurred on by a disparaging comment from a friend or family member on their weight gain, or as a result of trauma or abuse. I see these factors at work in the clients we serve at Rock Recovery, a DC-based nonprofit that helps people find freedom from disordered eating. I see them in my own story as well.
For those struggling with disordered eating in the midst of the coronavirus, the negative voices surrounding food and your body may have just gotten louder (or perhaps surfaced for the first time). Let’s explore why.
Disordered eating often starts as an attempt to control or cope with difficult circumstances.
For many the attempt to control food or exercise is part of a larger desire to feel in control in otherwise uncontrollable circumstances (enter, coronavirus). The overarching narrative is, “I may not be able to control what happens around me, but I can control what I put on my plate or do with my body.”
We are not experts at how to live during a pandemic, and it is throwing me off balance. I rely on my competence and hustle like no other (I live in Washington, D.C. after all). Feeling like a beginner increases my anxiety and shame spiraling, and I want to do ANYTHING to feel like an expert again.
For years, this desire for perfection and control fueled my disordered eating. I knew my calorie counts, food rules, and goal weights backwards and forwards. When I started to feel insecure, uncertain, or rejected, I would turn toward those “certainties” and feel immediate (yet false) relief.
Disordered eating thrives during times of change and isolation.
Schedules have been disrupted, many of us are home alone, and our access to food is suddenly different (we may be keeping more food in the house or may not be able to stick with our food and grocery store routines).
Many of our clients have lamented that the only way they were able to eat lunch was because they sat down with their coworkers for support and accountability, or that scheduling dinner dates with friends during the week was their saving grace.
Change is hard, and isolation is what allows disordered eating (or really any of our struggles) to thrive. We need each other for accountability and support.
Our society pushes “diet culture” and has an extremely unhealthy view of food and bodies.
According to registered dietitian Christy Harrison, “Diet culture is a system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue.” It is insidious, and it is everywhere. Take a look at what is happening on social media feeds across the nation. There is massive pressure being put on us to “use this time wisely,” to lose weight, get in shape, and avoid weight gain at all costs.
Why are these harmful messages so compelling? It gives us a place to channel our frantic energy, an answer to the uncertainty, and an outlet for our angst. We want to be worthy. Diet culture exploits that and holds us hostage in a spiral of guilt and shame.
Here are five tips to help you alleviate triggers and overcome disordered eating in the midst of the coronavirus.
Resist the temptation to fill your schedule 24/7 and allow space for feelings
I am a PLANNER. I think my love language is to-do lists. It is really tempting for me to make myself busy to distract myself from uncomfortable feelings and feel more in control. Instead of distracting yourself and filling your days to the brim, become a more curious observer and piece together the clues your feelings give you in the space and silence. Create space in your days for quiet reflection and room to rest to avoid feeling burnt out and frazzled.
Feed your body and your soul
It can be easy to fall out of balance with a strange schedule and constant time at home. Maybe you are hungrier than you used to be, that’s okay! Your body needs more energy, listen to it. Focus on getting the rest, movement, fuel and encouragement you need to take care of yourself. My pastor loves referencing the phrase, “Pay attention to what you are paying attention to.” What are you watching on Netflix or seeing as you scroll through your phone? Pay attention to how you feel after you consume information or entertainment from any media outlet, and make sure you are feeding yourself primarily with encouragement. (Also, use your right to unfollow liberally!)
Set boundaries and let go of perfectionism
Be gentle with yourself and put up some boundaries. I take a break from working and get outside for a reprieve from our 500 square foot apartment at least once a day and read the news no more than twice a day. It is helpful to have these pieces in place so my days don’t get away from me. Reject rigidity that tells you that you have to make a perfect plan. There isn’t one. You are allowed to be having a hard time, even when other people have it harder. It is also okay (and even normal!) if you don’t keep up with your routine, get your workout in, or eat a sleeve of Oreos for dinner one night.
Be intentional with connection
I am intentionally connecting with others outside of my home at least once each day (my introverted husband is pleased to get a break from his VERY extroverted wife). Remember to schedule those virtual dates with those you love. Call that friend, make an appointment with your therapist (or get one for the first time!), and resist the temptation to isolate without accountability. We need each other.
Remember to take things one day at a time
When I reflect on the day that has passed I see a lot of joy, even amidst these new rhythms. When I look ahead to the next few weeks or months and think about all that has changed, I start to panic. Take things day by day. Life (and recovery!) are a bunch of baby steps and tiny victories strung together. Celebrate the victories, and give yourself grace for the setbacks. This too shall pass.
Looking for some additional support? Check out Rock Recovery’s COVID-19 Resource Guide with helpful support groups, webinars, articles, and more.