Eating disorders thrive in times of crisis. They pounce on any disruption to everyday life and turn your recovery on its head, and I know from personal experience how difficult this can be.
I have lived with an eating disorder since my early teens, which means I have plenty of experience juggling my eating disorder in times of crisis, whether that’s my parents’ separation, family bereavements, or most recently, a global pandemic.
As my recovery has progressed, I’ve established a toolbox of coping strategies to see me through unprecedented times, so I want to share that advice on maintaining recovery when chaos enters your life.
2020 in particular brought mayhem into the lives of people with eating disorders. The global health crisis sent my own treatment into a spin because so much was out of my hands, which is uncomfortable when you’ve spent years aggressively exercising control with an eating disorder. Lockdowns meant I moved around less, contributing to guilt for not exercising, being at home meant I ate more, and fewer social distractions meant more time to focus on my appearance and space for intrusive thoughts to invade my brain.
Eating disorders do not care. They will not stop for any crisis to give you a break, which often means, rather than trying to forget about our EDs altogether, we simply have to find ways of managing them.
Below are 10 tips on doing just that.
1. Know your coping mechanisms in case of relapse
In times of crisis, it’s natural for something as violent as an eating disorder to flare up. When we’ve viewed them as friends, it’s understandable why we turn to them for comfort. However, try to establish coping strategies to prevent potential relapses from escalating. This will become easier as you better understand your triggers and how to respond to them.
Coping strategies can include having a list of contacts to call for help, distraction techniques, meal plans, daily mantras, journaling, ensuring you have safe foods at home and throwing out the scale to avoid weighing yourself. It may be beneficial to list your coping mechanisms so next time your eating disorder gets obnoxious, you have a plan of action. The sooner you acknowledge signs of a relapse and act on them, the sooner you can climb out of it.
2. Find joy in the little things — which can also serve as a distraction
No matter the scale of a crisis, nothing should stop you from enjoying things you love. Whether it’s a TV series you can quote word for word, delving into a book, playing sport or exchanging memes in group chats, continue to find pockets of happiness in every day, all of which can be distractions and stop you turning to harmful behaviours.
Throwing yourself into a new hobby is also a good way of pushing eating disorder urges to the back of your mind as you work towards goals that don’t involve food or how your body looks. In lockdown earlier this year, I started knitting, which proved therapeutic, and other days I did nothing but listen to the entire High School Musical soundtracks.
However, it’s important to remember there’s a line between being distracted from your problems and just ignoring them altogether in hope of them disappearing. This is something I often grapple with. If you need help, seek it, don’t just shove things aside for the thoughts to return later.
3. Never underestimate the power of rest
When old trauma resurfaces, it puts our bodies under so much strain, which is why choosing to do nothing can be the most powerful and assertive choice you make in recovery. Your mind and body are already fighting so hard to keep you alive, you aren’t weak for needing rest every now and then — resting is necessary for your survival and resting is productive.
Taking time out allows you to recharge and ensures you’re energised enough to make the most valuable contribution you can to the world in times of crisis — simply being in it, and being in it as your whole self, which you can’t do if you’re burnt out.
4. Remember how important it is to eat
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt throughout the pandemic, it’s the importance of eating. I don’t think I truly understood how important it is to nourish my body until this year, or that no matter what’s happening in the world, our need to eat doesn’t decrease. During a health crisis especially, you need strength from food, because pursuing thinness at a time of real global uncertainty will not protect you and being thin won’t make you immune to illness. We always need to eat, regardless of the effects that has on our bodies, and when so many people will not make it out of 2020 alive, we owe it to ourselves to respond to hunger cues and celebrate the magic of how our bodies lovingly accept food and use it to carry us through the day.
In times of crisis, there’s a chance your eating habits will change, you might eat more, snack out of boredom, eat erratically and change weight as a result. That’s fine. If the only thing you exit a crisis with is some extra pounds on your hips, you should celebrate. You being alive matters much more than the number on the scales.
5. Create a circle of support and utilise it
Eating disorders thrive in isolation, so don’t cut yourself off from support. Establish a reliable support network and utilise it without guilt.
You are not a burden for talking about your struggles, and even if loved ones don’t have first hand experience with eating disorders, it can feel freeing to just vent and allow someone else to carry some of the load.
Make sure your support network includes professionals, whether it’s a doctor or a therapist, and remember those people don’t vanish in times of crisis. Even in pandemics, specialists still offer appointments, charities offer advice and social media is overflowing with people in the same boat. People want to be there for you and they want you safe and well, so lean on them, ask for advice and cry on their shoulders. Recovery is such a personal process and, at the end of the day, no one can recover for you (I wish they could!) but it’s less hellish if you’ve got pals with ears to listen and offer distractions when you just want to smile and be more than your eating disorder for a while.
6. Remember what you can and can’t control
My own eating disorder grew when I developed a dangerous penchant for control, so now any situation that makes me feel like I don’t have a say in how things are going to turn out can bring about confusion and fear. In these times it’s understandable why we turn to eating disorders to grasp back some authority, but it’s ok to acknowledge that some situations are beyond our control as a whole, however within our own lives, we can exercise control in more positive ways, like taking charge of our self- care. We don’t need to turn to our eating disorders to feel powerful, especially when our disorders are actually the ones holding the reins.
7. Establish a routine — find some normality amongst the abnormality
Eating disorders hate structure, so defy them by introducing routine, which includes eating regularly. Many find it helpful to create a meal plan, which can ease anxiety around meal preparation. You shouldn’t beat yourself up if you don’t always manage to stick to a schedule, but planning what you eat, as well as activities through the day, can make life feel more organised and less messy. I know you might think it’s impossible, and believe me there was a time when I thought I could never eat three meals each day, but eating is now firmly cemented into my day.
8. Be gentle with yourself
Be patient — scrutinising yourself won’t make times of crisis any smoother. I understand you might feel frustrated in moments of uncertainty and need to take your frustration out, but don’t direct it towards yourself. You haven’t done anything wrong. All you can do is your best, and your best will look different every day. Sometimes it’ll mean merely surviving rather than thriving, but in times of chaos, surviving is one of the most powerful things a person can do. Forgive yourself when eating disorder urges get loud and always keep in mind that anything bad isn’t permanent. It’s just a glitch.
9. Curate social media feeds that bring out the best in your recovery
When life throws us curve balls and especially when the world comes to a standstill like it did this year, we tend to spend more time on our phones, so make sure social media brings out the best in your recovery, just as you’d want your friendship circle offline to do.
I find seeking reassurance from fellow ED survivors online extremely encouraging, and I’m proud of how I’ve transformed the way I use the internet to inspire my recovery as opposed to seeking out tips on restriction like I used to. I’ve now curated social media feeds that motivate me to look after myself. I recommend following eating disorder warriors for regular reminders that you are never as alone as your ED might make you feel, and diversifying who you follow so your feeds represent the real world. I find following people who share motivational quotes useful too, as well as sarcastic meme pages to inject humour into my scrolls!
Think of each social media account as a magazine you want to read. You are the editor with power to create an issue that is uplifting, positive and authentic. Protect yourself as well, though. Report and block triggering content.
10. Remember why you started I decided to pursue recovery because I was tired of feeling trapped in my eating disorder and having it hold me back. When I feel despondent, I remind myself of how I felt before recovery entered my life. I don’t want to go back to that place, which is why I continue to choose recovery over and over, often when I don’t want to. I started this journey because I wanted to get better and I have seen and felt many times since how much more vibrant and fruitful life can be beyond an eating disorder. So, when times of crisis make you question if recovery is worth carrying on with, remember why you began recovering in the first place. You deserve recovery and there are so many wonderful opportunities awaiting you on the other side of this crisis.
Visit eating disorder charity Beat for online support. Click here to view their website and access their groups.
NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: A massive ‘thank you!’ to Emily from all of us at InSPIre the Mind for sharing this wonderful insight into living with an eating disorder during times of crisis. Emily is a writer and journalist specialising in mental well-being and has been featured in a variety of online and print publications, including Metro and Glamour, and an aspiring author. Much of Emily’s work focuses on her own experiences and about raising awareness of how harmful diet culture is, its impact on young girls, and the importance of equal access to eating disorder treatment and dispel the myths and stereotypes around EDs — you can read more about her journey to recovery on her blog Emily Recovers. Thank you, Emily!