When Megan te Boekhorst first heard that people were stockpiling food as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, anxiety swept over her.
The Toronto-based marketing and communication professional lives with binge-eating disorder, and the idea of certain items being unavailable in grocery stores became a trigger. While te Boekhorst had been getting treatment, her in-person meetings recently stopped due to physical distancing regulations.
Although the government has noted Canadians will not experience a food shortage, the thought of scarcity concerns her.
“ creates that same anxiety effect where I want to binge,” te Boekhorst said.
“Whenever we’re talking about the lack of access to food, I get scared and it brings out that strange, almost uncontrollable feeling in me, where I just want to eat everything in sight — even if there’s no food in sight.”
Between stories of people panic buying food, memes about quarantine weight gain and endless tips on how to stay fit at home, messages around eating and body image are rampant right now.
Pair that with self-isolation and a period of global anxiety, and you have a dangerous combination for those dealing with an eating disorder, said Kyla Fox, a clinical therapist and founder of eating disorder treatment centre The Kyla Fox Centre.
“Fundamentally the development of eating disorders and disordered eating are… often built around anxiety and unpredictability,” said Fox.
Fox said that when people turn to food or eating rituals, it gives them the illusion that they have a sense of control and predictability.
“In a time where so much is being taken from us, and so much is unknown, it makes the desire for people to pull on their food and body ‘rules’ in a more heightened way.”
Food availability and stockpiling
Grocery stores across Canada are experiencing higher traffic than usual, meaning certain food items may be temporarily sold out or unavailable. Fox said limited food options can be distressing for those dealing with an eating disorder, as specific foods can be part of someone’s eating routine.
Similarly, if someone has orthorexia, an obsession with “healthy” foods, for example, the inability to obtain desired foods can be very upsetting.
“More than ever, people may feel they have to rely on some of their rituals,” Fox said.
There’s a fine line, Fox said, between wanting to create some level of comfort for people with eating disorders and also recognizing that “sometimes those places of comfort are actually just supporting eating disorder behaviour.”
“It’s a confusing time for people in that way.”
When te Boekhorst, who is currently in self-isolation, tried to order groceries online, her go-to cereal was sold out at several nearby stores for over a week. One store finally had it in stock, and the cereal was delivered to her home mid-week.
“It’s insane how much my anxiety — just to have access to it — has gone down,” she said.
While this behaviour may not make sense to people who aren’t struggling, said te Boekhorst, the distress that those with eating disorders experience is real.
“Mental illness… is completely illogical,” said te Boekhorst, who is also the founder of One in Five, a clothing line that challenges misconceptions about mental illness.
“There’s no logic behind a mental illness and it’s important for others to be there for the folks who are willing to open up about their mental health struggles or eating disorder during this time.”
Social media messaging
On top of conversations around food, social media is filled with posts on how to avoid gaining the “quarantine 15” and tips on how to exercise at home.
While maintaining physical activity for overall well-being is important, Fox said, a common aspect of eating disorders is overexercising. The influx of workout posts can be triggering for those currently dealing with an eating or exercise disorder, as well as those in recovery.
Fox said if someone is finding social media posts to be upsetting, it’s a good idea to limit the amount of time spent online. Te Boekhorst said that since the COVID-19 outbreak, her Twitter feed has become too overwhelming.
“I stay on there for maybe two minutes at a time before I have to shut it down otherwise I will start experiencing a trigger,” she said.
“Same thing with Instagram — especially because it’s so visual — you see people, whether it’s the food they’re making or the workouts they’re doing.”
Seeking support and maintaining routine
Self-isolation and social distancing measures are incredibly vital right now, but they have changed many people’s daily activities. For people living with eating disorders, routines are often very important.
Going for long walks is one way te Boekhorst copes with her eating disorder, but since she’s been in self-isolation, she hasn’t been able to leave her home.
Treatment was also becoming part of te Boekhorst’s routine before the outbreak. She says the sudden shift from seeing professionals in real life to having to connect over technology is a challenge.
“It’s tough for me because it is really hard to reach out for help, especially when I had gone through this already,” she said.
Maintaining support and connecting with mental health professionals, however, is incredibly important in eating disorder recovery, Fox said, especially now during the pandemic.
While in-person support groups and therapy sessions are not possible at the moment, many therapists have turned to phone or video conferencing appointments. Many eating disorder support groups have gone online, too, Fox said.
“I know that therapy groups don’t necessarily feel the same, but I think at the very least, to be able to make some element of connection to those peer groups or therapeutic interventions is really critical at this time,” Fox said.
“It allows for at least that element of normalcy, accountability and relatability… which is fundamental for eating disorder recovery.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
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