New Brunswick

COVID-19 creates 'perfect storm' for people with eating disorders

COVID-19 has made isolation, food stockpiling and stress the norm — a perfect storm for someone struggling with an eating disorder.

Isolation, loss of support systems could lead some in recovery to relapse

People recovering from eating disorders are feeling the loss of their support systems during COVID-19, and turning to online resources for help. (Shuttershock)

COVID-19 has made isolation, food stockpiling and stress the norm — a perfect storm for someone struggling with an eating disorder.

Eating disorders affect around one in 12  people and have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, says mental health advocate Shaleen Jones. 

That's why support workers with eating disorder groups are concerned that with the sudden loss of peer support groups, treatment programs and therapists, many people on the road to recovery will return to self-destructive behaviour.

Before the pandemic, she heard from people who found help through social support networks, following meal plans, and exercise.

"Those things have all shifted," said Jones, who is also the executive director of Eating Disorders Nova Scotia, or EDNS, a peer support group.

"It's the perfect storm." 

Eating Disorders NS says stress, isolation, and a lack of resources can create the 'perfect storm' for someone recovering to relapse. (Robert Short/CBC)

In response to these growing concerns, her group has been offering peer support online.

Free support group programs run by EDNS connect people struggling with eating disorders, and offer workshops and resources to help with recovery. 

The group also has an online group chat every Sunday and Wednesday evenings, moderated by peer support workers.

The great thing about online peer support, said Jones, is that you can access it anywhere, anytime.

In the past month, Jones has seen a big jump in people trying to access online programming, and 20 per cent of those users are from either New Brunswick, P.E.I. or Ontario.

"We're able to connect with folks who don't have someone who has been through this in their lives, and perhaps for many folks this may be the first time they've disclosed that to almost anyone. So that sense of community and that sense of connectivity I think that's huge."

Once things return to some state of normal, Jones said, EDNS hopes to expand programming into New Brunswick, and have trained two peer support mentors to be on the ground in the province. 

Notice the signs

Eating disorders also manifest themselves in control and rigidity, explained Justine Rickard, a facilitator with the YWCA eating disorder program in Moncton. 

"This global state of uncertainty can make this population especially susceptible to feeling out of control," she said. "So there's definitely concern that we'll see an increase in eating disorder behaviours as people try to alleviate the anxiety and that feeling of lack of control." 

Irritability and increased emotions around mealtime could be signs that you're slipping, says peer support worker Justine Rickard. (Shutterstock)

Rickard urges those recovering from an eating disorder to pay attention to signs of a potential relapse. 

Increased irritability and intense emotions are signs that something might be going on underneath the surface. Also look out for an increased preoccupation with food, especially around meal times, said Rickard.

"Whether that's physical food deprivation, that they're not able to have access to certain foods, or psychological deprivation, 'the food is bad or I shouldn't eat the food,'" she said.

We usually keep encouraging people they're not alone. They don't have to do this by themselves.- Shaleen Jones, Eating Disorders Nova Scotia

There are a number of things you can do if you see disordered eating habits start to emerge, said Rickard. 

"Making sure that you are eating enough, which might include timing meals or setting reminders because for some folks, those cues for hunger aren't necessarily there."

For Jones, self-compassion is key. 

"There's no need to hustle right now," she said.

"This is a great time to curate your feed and to block or mute any counts that are contributing to a sense of positivity for you."

Supporting loved ones

There are things friends and family can do to make life under COVID-19 easier for those with eating disorders, said Rickard. 

"Talking about food in a neutral way, so avoiding moralizing language like bad or healthy or unhealthy," she said. 

She also suggested avoiding "body talk" or discussions about weight and body-shaming. 

Heightened focus on food shortages can be triggering for some people with eating disorders, who already experience anxiety around food. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

"I know there's some funny jokes going around weight gain during quarantine stuff and they're so incredibly harmful," she said. 

Rickard said the EDNS online support groups are a great resource for New Brunswickers, since they can be easily accessed, but she added the YWCA has been offering similar programming that not many people know about.

The National Eating Disorder Information Centre is also a good resource for those struggling, and for their families and loved ones, Rickard added.

Perhaps most important is staying connected and hopeful, said Jones. 

"Many people never get diagnosed," she said. "But we know that when people do reach out and get treatment and get help that most people are able to fully recover. We usually keep encouraging people they're not alone. They don't have to do this by themselves." 

With files from Shift NB