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'People are afraid of relapsing': Dealing with an eating disorder during this time of uncertainty

Disruption to routine and normality can add undue stress to those dealing with disordered eating.

Image: Shutterstock/fizkes

A LOT OF challenges have arisen for people with eating disorders caused by Covid-19 restrictions and changes to daily routines, an expert has said.

Harriet Parsons, psychotherapist and training and development manager at Bodywhys,  said the lack of routine and control at the moment can induce panic in people who have eating disorders. 

Bodywhys is a national voluntary organisation supporting those affected by eating disorders.

“The problem with an eating disorder, and everybody really feels this at the moment, is that one minute you could feel fine and within minutes you can flip and feel absolutely awful,” Parsons told TheJournal.ie. 

“I think most of us feel like this at the moment, but people with an eating disorder can feel like this all the time.”

The organisation’s online support service has seen an increase in people who have been doing better with their eating disorders checking back in with these groups recently as old thoughts resurface. 

“People are afraid of relapsing, so people who have been really okay with their disorder have been logging in to get the support while being out of their routine,” she said.

When dealing with change at the moment, Parsons emphasised the importance of being kind to yourself in terms of productivity.  

“[One person with an eating disorder] felt this pressure of ‘I should be doing this or that’ and I think that’s really a potential panic inducing thing for people with eating disorders. They really put pressure on themselves to be the best at everything and do everything to 150%,” Parsons said. 

It is okay to do absolutely nothing… You do not need to earn looking after yourself – it’s okay to rest and veg out and not get anything done.

“Eating disorders love nothing more than someone being in a state of panic,” she said. “The eating disorders thrive on that and they will use that.”

Dealing with new restrictions

People affected by eating disorders often set rules around what they eat and the energy they expend.  

“Now that there are boundaries around [movement] and what they can do, this can cause a lot of panic for a person,” Parsons said.  

“Realising that you’re a member of the human race and you also need to feed yourself and that you’re not different to everyone else is important.”

For adolescents and/or those living with other people, she said “a lot of good” can come out of being around others and watching them eat regularly. 

“Everybody has to eat according to a routine and structure and the young person can see everybody is doing this, and it’s okay,” she said.   

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Parsons said one way for people who are affected by eating disorders to re-focus these thoughts is to imagine themselves as a small child. 

“You wouldn’t say to a child that you’re not allowed to eat your dinner because you ate too much at lunch… You wouldn’t be cruel in the same way that an eating disorder makes someone be cruel and punish themselves.”  

Bodywhys has also heard from people who have found it challenging to listen to diet and fitness conversations from those who do not have an eating disorder. 

Parsons advised getting panicked thoughts outside of the brain in whatever way suits best. 

“Anything that helps you to slow your head down and get the thoughts out of your head,” she advised. 

This could be through writing it down in a journal or saying it to another person, for example. Parsons also suggested writing an email to the Bodywhys support service who will respond to the person. 

Visiting a regular supportive space is also important to incorporate into a daily routine for people dealing with a lot of change at the moment.  

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