When we find ourselves in crisis, without access to some resources, or in any moment of transition or tumultuousness, it’s natural to fall back onto old patterns and methods of getting our needs met. And that’s the core driving force behind many (if not all) eating disorders: meeting a need that isn’t being met elsewhere. This pandemic has, essentially overnight, thrown our global community into crisis and separated many of us from social support, mental healthcare, physical connection, and countless other resources we have come to rely on. It is to be expected that anyone who has survived an eating disorder or who is in the process of working through one might notice that their eating disorder voice is a bit louder, more aggressive, or more present than you’re used to. If that’s you, you may be feeling scared, anxious, sad, or angry to be joined by that particularly unwelcome quarantine buddy.
Something I like to remind my clients of often is the non-linear nature of recovery. We can fall into the trap of thinking about recovery as a binary – either I have an eating disorder, or I’m totally, irreversibly cured. Right now, your mind might be scrambling desperately for something that feels familiar or comfortable, and your eating disorder might just be making itself extra-available. If that’s where you find yourself, do what you can to remember that recovery isn’t all-or-nothing.
Of course, along with understanding why you might be falling back into some old patterns, there are still ways to prioritize your recovery. With gyms shutting down and food being stockpiled, the world might feel like an especially acute minefield of triggers right now. Something simple and important to start with is your awareness. Notice what is coming up for you. My clients can attest to my being a broken record about this, but try and let yourself be curious. What situations are feeling especially difficult? What shifts have you noticed in your thinking and behaviors? Are there times of day that are especially challenging or particularly manageable? Give yourself permission to try simply noticing. And if even the act of tuning in and noticing what’s happening is feeling difficult, that’s ok. You might need to try and ground yourself a bit first before that feels safe. You can try a simple grounding exercise like 5-4-3-2-1, utilize a guided meditation, or simply get in a comfortable position and take some time to slow down and take some deep breaths in through your nose and out like you’re blowing on soup or through a straw. Any of these might help your nervous system to get to a place of calm and rest and allow you to have some more awareness of yourself and your body. You can also channel what you’re noticing into a journal entry or a piece of art – getting it out of your head and onto a page can help it to feel less heavy.
The limits to or abundance of food might be feeling tricky right now, too. A lot of what is easy to buy in bulk or store for a long time might contain some nutrients that can feel scary to eat a lot of. Maybe all that’s left when you did your grocery run are some of your fear foods. Maybe a parent or roommate stocked up on enough food to last you for months and that sheer availability is frightening. If you’ve done work with an eating disorder informed dietician, you know the importance of eating regularly and that the idea of moralizing foods as “good” or “bad” can be dangerous. Maybe this can be an opportunity to tune into those hunger and fullness queues that you may have been working with a therapist or dietician to reconnect with. You can try scaling your feelings of hunger/fullness from 1-10 (1 being ravenous, 10 being full to the point of feeling sick). If you find yourself feeling judgmental of whatever number you’re experiencing, that’s okay. Try and reframe that judgmental sentence with only the facts. If you think “I ate so much I am at an 8, I messed up/I’m bad,” what happens when you strip away the judgment and simply say “I ate enough to register that as an 8 on a scale of 1-10. My stomach is hurting”? Moving from a place of judgment to a place of observation helps us to relax and manage anxiety, and it’s also an easy way to meet yourself with a bit more compassion.
Now might also be a great time to do some reading to help you stay on track as well. Some books I like to recommend to clients are The F*ck It Diet, Body Respect, Intuitive Eating, and Eating in the Light of the Moon. There’s been a lot swirling around in our social media feeds about curing the virus with restrictive diets or intensive exercise. A lot of people’s anxieties, fears, and neuroses around food and movement are out in full force. If you’re finding yourself feeling very sensitive to that messaging or maybe starting to feel seduced by it, it might be helpful to try and replace some of that with these books that present a kinder, healthier, more balanced approach. It can also be helpful to have some of these books around if you are finding that you’re intaking a lot of news and information. Notice when you are seeing signs you might need a break from the news, and have something else around to intake as a break.
Finally, socially isolating doesn’t have to mean emotionally isolating. Make sure you’re reaching out to people. Set up Zoom dates with friends and family who help you to feel safe and supported. Let people know you are thinking about them. Reach out to your therapist and see if you can schedule a virtual session. If you don’t have one, most therapists who were accepting new clients before COVID-19 still are! While you are reaching out and trying to meet your people with kindness, extend that kindness to yourself as well. Do what you can to offer yourself grace and empathy. The world is pretty overwhelming right now – you’re doing your best, and your best is enough.