Nine out of ten people with experience of eating disorders are dealing with profoundly negative impacts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A study from Northumbria University in the UK found that as well as affecting the general population around the world, the pandemic is causing additional and unique challenges for those experiencing eating disorders.
“As psychologists with previous research experience in relation to eating disorders, we recognised that the COVID-19 pandemic and in particular the associated lockdown period was likely to impact upon several factors that are important in eating disorder recovery (or relapse). For example, lockdown impacts upon daily routines, social interactions, access to healthcare (or other forms of social support), changes to our exercise routines and even – particularly at the start of lockdown – access to certain foods,” Dr Dawn Branley-Bell, author of the study and a psychologist at Northumbria University told Theravive.
“Many individuals are also likely to experience increased anxiety and feelings of uncertainty due to the pandemic (including fears around health, family, employment etc.). All of these factors could have a detrimental impact for individuals with experience of eating disorders. Therefore we set out to ask individuals with lived experience how the pandemic has impacted upon their lives and wellbeing.”
In the early days of the UK lockdown, Dr. Branley-Bell and colleague Dr. Catherine Talbot conducted a survey of those who currently lived with an eating disorder or were in recovery from an eating disorder.
They found that 87 per cent of those surveyed reported that their symptoms had worsened due to the pandemic. More than 30 per cent said their symptoms were much worse. The researchers say their findings suggest social distancing measures as well as disruptions to everyday life due to lockdown were detrimental to the wellbeing of those surveyed.
Those surveyed experienced decreased feelings of being in control, an increase in feeling socially isolated, increased rumination about disordered eating behaviors and feeling they had a low level of social support.
The researchers also found that social media posts and media coverage could cause anxiety for this group due to the wider population’s focus on weight gain, food and exercise during the pandemic.
“Participants reflected on the increased public preoccupation with weight gain, exercise and food intake during the lockdown. Social media, the mass media and government campaigns have a big focus on promoting weight loss and increased exercise – something many of our participants found distressing and/or triggering,” Dr. Branley-Bell said.
After analysing the responses from those surveyed, the researchers found that the negative impact of the pandemic is likely due to changes in daily routines, living situations, access to treatment, time spent with friends or family, time spent engaging in physical activity, use of technology and relationships with food.
“Our research really highlighted just how many aspects of peoples’ lives were affected by the pandemic and the lockdown. This included daily routines, social interactions, living situations, access to healthcare (or other forms of social support), changes to our exercise routines and even – particularly at the start of lockdown – access to certain foods. Many individuals have also experienced increased anxiety and feelings of uncertainty due to the pandemic (including fears around health, family, employment etc.). All of these factors could have a detrimental impact for individuals with experience of eating disorders,” Branley-Bell said.
She says it’s important family and friends take steps to support their loved ones either experiencing or in recovery from an eating disorder during the pandemic. She says this can be done through technology, but may require special adjustments to cater for the needs of the person.
“Many participants reported that technology plays a positive role in enabling them to remain in contact with friends and family during lockdown, particularly if they find themselves socially isolated during this period. Friends and family may wish to embrace this means of offering support. However, it is worth noting that some individuals reflected on anxieties around being presented with their own video during video-calling. This could lead to increased awareness of their appearance and increase self-criticism or exacerbation of eating disorder-related thoughts,” she told Theravive.
“Using a different means of communication, or alternatively using a video-calling platform that allows users to hide their self-view could be beneficial. Also, let loved ones know that you appreciate that they may find aspects of the pandemic and/or lockdown difficult (for example changes to routine, living situation, control over food preparation, changes to exercise and increased anxiety etc) and ask if there is anything in particularly that they would find helpful during this time.”
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.