The Coronavirus pandemic has deeply impacted everyone around the globe and has had a significant effect on both the physical and mental health of many individuals. The pandemic may contribute to new disordered eating patterns and aggravate pre-existing eating disorder (ED) behaviors, given the interruption of daily routines, increased exposure to social media, emotional distress, and the fear of contagion. In conjunction, the decrease in access to care and t social support limitations have also exaggerated the effects of ED.
Disruption of Daily Activities and Routines
The restrictions in daily activities incurred from the COVID-19 pandemic have substantial consequences. As a necessity for public health and safety, work-related and educational activities have been shifted to the home as much as possible, which have impacted eating, physical activity, and sleep patterns, each of which may affect or increase the risk of ED behaviors.
Regarding eating, the lack of daily structures and the recent combination of home and workspace may increase the risk of ED behaviors. The removal of the more structured work environment that supported an eating schedule may have led to an increase in snacking and grazing. The perception of food scarcity of certain foods has also encouraged stockpiling, which could contribute to binge eating behaviors.
Social support is key to managing eating disorders. Having a strong support network has proven to help manage and reduce disordered eating. Necessary social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders have led to social isolation and acted as a barrier to social support, making individuals with ED more vulnerable to relapse. Helpful activities, such as individual and group therapy are not as accessible. In the absence of a support network, individuals may turn to less adaptive behaviors like binge eating, restrictive eating, compulsive exercise, or purging.
The Use of Media as it Pertains to Eating Disorders
“Media use, including social media, is associated with increased risk for disordered eating in particular through exposure to thin ideal‐ and diet culture‐related content as well as food advertising (The impact of the COVID‐19 pandemic on eating disorder risk and symptoms (nih.gov).” Social distancing has increased the need for media as a means of communication and to fill the gap where social supports are no longer available. Jokes circulating around social media about weight gain during this period of confinement have only increased the anxiety that leads to disordered eating habits.
Increased use of video conferencing for work, health and wellness appointments as well as communication with family and friends may also contribute to the risk of ED behaviors. With the increase in video conferencing, the likelihood of focusing on one’s appearance, has also greatly increased.
Anxiety, COVID-19 and Eating Disorders
According to PubMed (nih.gov), “Of women presenting for treatment of an eating disorder, 65% also met criteria for at least one comorbid anxiety disorder.” Continuous coverage of stressful and traumatic world events can increase anxiety and disordered eating.
Fear of contamination, social isolation, disagreements about masking and vaccination recommendations, along with concerns about the effect of the pandemic on the global economy have created a tense emotional environment. These factors combined with a pre-existing diagnosis of ED and anxiety can be a difficult mix.
Long Term Effects of the Pandemic and Eating Disorders
It is not yet known what the long-term effects of the pandemic will be on emotional health, and specifically how it relates to eating disorders. There are no previous studies done to determine the impact of a pandemic on ED risk and the appropriate steps to recovery, but according to Ed Prideaux of the BBC and author of ‘How to Heal the Mass Trauma of COVID-19,’ the quickest pathway to recovery is commemoration. Voicing our collective trauma, sharing our experiences, telling our story, and commemorating our pain, is the healthiest way to move forward.
“Covid-19 is a mass trauma the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Our most complex social extensions, and the building blocks of our personal realities, have been colored indelibly. The ways we live and work together and view each other as common citizens: everything means something different in the viral era and with potentially traumatic effects.
All pandemics end, however. And this one will. But to forget the trauma, move on, and pay it no mind, won’t help. It’d be a disservice to history and our own minds. Maybe to the future, too.”