The COVID-19 quarantine period has been a trying time for everyone, especially those with preexisting mental health conditions. However, people with eating disorders have had an increasingly difficult time coping and continuing recovery. The world in quarantine has created a completely controlled and rigid environment and has exacerbated and perpetuated the comforts of eating disorder behaviors.
Quarantine and Stay At Home orders across the country have dictated that everyone stay home, close their businesses, and give up their established daily schedules. While this complete upheaval of everyday life has proven to be challenging for many, those struggling with eating disorders have faced increased triggers and obstacles in their battle for recovery.
A common misconception about eating disorders is that recovery is a single point in time where someone completely overcomes their disease and it ceases to be a problem. In reality, survivors live with their eating disorders their entire lives, and recovery involves learning to make choices in spite of it.
Recovery has its ups and downs, and people with eating disorders still get triggered, struggle to cope, and go through periods of relapsing or turning to past behaviors.
Quarantine is a stressful life event that has created an extremely triggering environment. Thus, there are several specific factors of the current quarantine world that have exacerbated eating disorder behaviors.
1. Quarantine reignites the need for people with eating disorders to regain control and stability in their lives.
Eating disorders are rooted in a need for control, and thus many people who have an eating disorder develop the disease during a time in their life where they feel unstable. When everything else in someone’s life is spiraling and they’re helpless, an eating disorder provides a way to regain stability.
No matter what happens in their life, they can always control what they eat and the scale. Quarantine is the perfect catalyst for the grips of an eating disorder to tighten, as it strips everyone of the comforts of their lifestyle and schedule.
Though someone in recovery may have learned to take control of their life through a healthy outlet such as a steady job, relationship, or routine, quarantine has taken away those established outlets. And, as eating disorders are a lifelong battle, the need for the stabilizing rituals of these diseases is reignited.
2. The closing of gyms and food establishments takes away potential coping mechanisms and access to ‘safe foods.’
Another key component of coping with an eating disorder is establishing a new mindset and relationship towards exercise and eating. Many survivors do this by viewing exercise as a mental health outlet and establishing feel-good workouts that aren’t triggering but are instead uplifting.
Gyms and certain fitness studios, then, may become safe havens and places of comfort for those in recovery. Similarly, eating disorder patients must learn to view food as a pleasurable activity and experience rather than an act that is directly correlated to fitness or the scale.
They may have ‘safe foods’ or certain restaurants that can be approachable, go-to places on a day where it is more challenging to eat.
In quarantine, recoveries no longer have access to all of these fitness and food establishments that they have grown to feel safe at. In turn, they may be triggered to turn back to old ways of thinking in leaning on exercise and food rules to cope.
3. The current narrative of the social media fitness community encourages people to use this time in Quarantine to ‘get fit’ or go on a diet.
Quarantine has people living in a state of limbo where most are working from home, stuck in the house all day, and have little to no structure in their lives.
Thus, diet culture dictates that now is the perfect time to upend your eating habits and ‘less-than-adequate’ exercise routine and transform yourself. The logic is that having more time and a less structured daily routine automatically and universally means people must attempt a complete fitness metamorphosis.
In reality, this irrational connection between having extra time and impulsively filling it with exercise and a dieting routine is exactly what eating disorders are built on: reestablishing order.
Social media is constantly perpetuating that people must take back control and do something productive during this time, similarly to how eating disorder behaviors serve to fill a void of instability. For people in recovery, this fitness narrative on social media is extremely triggering and threatens to hinder the progress made to reinvent one’s relationship with food and exercise.
4. Living in quarantine prevents in-person sources of support such as therapists, friends, and loved ones.
Eating disorder recovery is no small feat, and many patients undergo family and group therapy in order to integrate their loved ones into their journey and coping strategies. They become accustomed to having support and encouragement around them, as well as having go-to people that understand their triggers and needs.
In quarantine, many people have been confined to either their family homes, or even to apartments where they may live alone. Without access to a support system or people they know can reliably provide an outlet when life gets stressful, people in eating disorder recovery may feel especially alone and misunderstood.
In this way, the isolating aspect of quarantine can be especially exacerbating for eating disorders.
5. Family stressors and lack of freedom causes people to feel trapped and creates a need for an outlet.
Familial unrest and turmoil can be one of the ultimate triggers for eating disorders. Family members are constant people in your life that you don’t necessarily choose, and thus family conflict can be that much more overwhelming and consuming.
Quarantine creates a scenario where many people are trapped in the middle of this conflict and don’t have the option to leave or take time alone to cool down. In eating disorder recovery, family therapy can often be the most rigorous piece of the healing process, and patients may spend months addressing each relationship and emotion.
In quarantine, these emotions and conflicts are constantly in your face, and people with eating disorders may feel forced to turn inward and push others away. This creates a scenario where, again, eating disorder behaviors become exacerbated and that much more attractive as a coping mechanism.