Tana Luo, PhD
Eating Disorder Recovery in the Time of a Global Pandemic
For those vulnerable to, recovering from, or in recovery from an eating disorder, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unique risks and challenges.
Staying socially connected
Eating disorders thrive on social isolation, which is why social connection and community often play an integral role in protecting one’s recovery. With social distancing mandates, many may be struggling to access their social support systems. Social distancing, however, does not have to mean social isolation. Below are some suggestions for cultivating a sense of connection:
- Reach out to those who have been supportive in your eating disorder recovery, and let them know how they can support you. Support, one day, may mean eating a meal or snack on FaceTime with your aunt. On other days, support might look like a phone call with a friend just to catch up and chat.
- Increases in anxiety and depression may make it even more difficult to connect with others. Give yourself a gentle push to engage socially, even if your eating disorder or another pesky voice is telling you not to – you may find that even the act of reaching out to and talking with someone else can change your mood and emotional state.
- These strategies apply to parents and loved ones, too! Supporting a loved one with an eating disorder may be accompanied by feelings of loneliness and isolation, which may be amplified in this time. Parents and loved ones would also benefit from attending to their relationships, staying connected with others, and seeking support.
Building a life worth living
Lockdown orders have introduced significant disruptions to individuals’ lives and may make it challenging to access activities that bring joy and fulfillment. Tending to your ‘life worth living’ goals will probably look a bit different during this time and will still offer powerful protection for your recovery.
- Take some time to think about your values, the things that bring you meaning, and day-to-day actions that would allow you to live a life in line with those values. This may even be an opportunity to discover and explore new hobbies, interests, and skill sets.
- It is OK to feel like you’re not operating on all cylinders at school, work, in your relationships, or in other endeavors. Now is also the time to practice self-compassion and acceptance of where you currently are.
- Make space for daily self-care, whether that’s getting outside for ten minutes each day or taking a few mindful breaths throughout the day. There’s no one “right” way to self-care; find what works for you.
Protecting your recovery
The emphasis on weight, exercise, and dieting during the pandemic may increase risk of relapse and the development of disordered eating and exercise behaviors in those who are vulnerable. Furthermore, with people spending more time on electronic devices, there may be greater exposure to diet culture, fat phobia, and other harmful messaging.
- Take stock of whether social media use is helpful or unhelpful and how you feel both while you are on social media and afterwards. If you find that eating disorder thoughts and urges are stronger after using social media, it may be beneficial to shift how you are using those platforms and/or limit use altogether.
- Mindfully follow accounts that support your recovery and align with body acceptance. Mindfully unfollow accounts that seem to elicit urges to socially compare or that increase or reinforce eating disorder thoughts and beliefs.
- If you come across unhelpful content, attend to any eating disorder urges that come up in response. Remind yourself that you can experience anxiety and these types of urges, while choosing to engage in recovery-oriented behaviors.
Coping with uncertainty
Living in the midst of a pandemic can feel scary, uncertain, and unpredictable. Many individuals may be experiencing an overall increase in their baseline level of anxiety. This, coupled with a potential decrease in access to other coping tools, may intensify urges to engage in eating disorder behaviors.
- Develop a schedule that helps you stay on track with eating, while intentionally and thoughtfully building in time for those self-care and ‘life worth living’ activities. Enlist the help of others for support and accountability.
- Make sure you are consistently attending appointments with your treatment providers. If you are not currently in treatment, now may be the time to re-establish care if you are struggling.
- The desire to have certainty in an uncertain world can fuel anxiety. Try practicing radical acceptance – that is, the acceptance of reality as it is, without judging it or trying to change it. Radical acceptance allows you to experience the present moment and all the emotions this may bring, which then opens the door to coping effectively.
The pandemic has had an immense impact on the lives of many and may be throwing what feels like a wrench into recovery. Tap into and reconnect with your reasons for recovery, lean on those around you (physically and virtually), and practice daily self-compassion and acceptance. And remember, you have a well of resilience within you that can and will carry you through this time.
About Tana Luo, PhD
Dr. Tana Luo is a clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. She completed her predoctoral and postdoctoral training at the UC San Diego Eating Disorders Center and has experience working with children, adolescents, and adults across different levels of care. During her fellowship, she received specialized training in treating pediatric eating disorders.
Equip is a virtual eating disorder treatment program helping families recover from eating disorders at home. Equip’s holistic, data-driven, gold-standard care program is delivered by a team of five care professionals, giving families confidence they’re providing the best opportunity for progress and lasting recovery.