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Give your feelings a voice

| Friday, April 3, 2020

The New York Times recently published a piece by Rachel L. Harris and Lisa Tarchak entitled “It’s Starting to Feel Like a Pressure Cooker in This House.” This piece complies reports of the pressures and challenges that arise from being confined for so long around family members. It also offers an interesting angle on how relationships can be affected by the restrictions the pandemic has imposed on our daily lives and routines.

As I was reading through the article, a noteworthy idea kept coming back to me: “What about people’s relationship with food?”

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports that approximately 20 million women and 10 million men in the U.S. have a clinically significant eating disorder. And recent research shows that disordered eating, a wider umbrella term referring to unhealthy behaviors around food, is significantly more prevalent.

For many people with eating disorders, quarantine is an unexpected trigger. “We tell our clients all the time, ‘Don’t isolate. Reach out for support,’“ said Christie Bettwy, the executive director of Rock Recovery, an eating disorder treatment group.

While physical isolation is necessary to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, it can be disastrous for those struggling with all types of mental health issues and eating disorders are no exception. Social distancing, self-quarantining and other measures involved in fighting COVID-19 provide the perfect environment for eating disorders to thrive. Eating disorders love isolation. It is the perfect environment to re-engage behaviors one has worked so hard to overcome. This is the perfect opportunity for that silence to get as loud as humanly possible.

Co-founders of a support group called The Chain, Ruthie Friedlander and Christina Grasso, agree that “the anxiety of being still and having large quantities of unstructured time can open the door to an increase in disordered thoughts, behaviors and obsessions, which can be difficult to control, especially in the absence of distractions.”

People with eating disorders tend to be more rigid and have trouble with flexibility, explains Lauren Muhlheim, founder of Eating Disorder Therapy LA. Wrecking a carefully-constructed coping routine is a guaranteed trigger even for people who generally just have a “complicated relationship” with food. It can also be very challenging to focus on coping and recovery when it feels like the world around you is ending. In these stressful times, one often feels helpless as things feel out of control. It’s thus easy to channel all this stress into food because it’s tangible, it’s in the here and now and it’s beautifully disguised under a sense of comfort as an escape from the uncertainty.  The disorder becomes a strategy for people to “numb out” and not experience their full spectrum of emotions.

Another challenge the coronavirus presents is that, as part of quarantining and isolating, people are stocking up on shelf-stable foods like rice, beans and pasta — classic fear foods for people with eating disorders. Typically, people with a history of binge eating cope by trying to keep as little food in the house as possible. Yet, this operation is not ideal during the outbreak.

As eating disorders, which capitalize on stress and fear, use this opportunity to elbow their way  back into people’s lives, it is crucial to adopt a proactive response to stay on track with recovery.

The most important step is this: give your feelings a voice.

I know you’ve retreated to your own space. Your kitchen table may be your new office. Your breaks and meals no longer involve friends. Your routine no longer involves constant activity and movement as you once navigated a demanding schedule. You move from your chair, to your couch, to your bed, back to the chair and then the recliner. It is perfectly normal to struggle with your eating disorder as these uncertain times rampage your routine. Don’t be afraid to say that you are struggling. Don’t feel like it’s silly or unimportant. Communicate your anxieties. Admit that it is increasingly hard to stay on track. Admit that you are more worried about weight gain than about contracting the virus itself. Voice your concerns to a family member, a friend, a therapist … and most importantly to yourself.

Your eating disorder will always try to find reasons to snake back into your life. In its abusive way, a disorder may code-switch between enemy and ally. It may bully and seduce, its voice seemingly supportive at times while disparaging and cruel at others. These feelings are normal. Give them a voice and legitimacy. Put them into words.

Susie Orbach once said, “I wish we could treat our bodies as the place we live from, rather than regard it as a place to be worked on, as though it were a disagreeable old kitchen in need of renovation and update.”

Today I want you to sit with the messy, contradictory, full-fledged human feelings you’re feeling now. Remember why recovery matters to you, I want you to learn how to connect more deeply with your body. Try to move more consciously and nurture yourself. But above all else: Please have mercy and affection for your own body and your own soul.

If you’re dealing with an eating disorder and need someone to talk to, the National Eating Disorders Association helpline is 1-800-931-2237; for 24/7 crisis support, text “NEDA” to 741741.


Krista Lourdes Akiki is currently part of the Mendoza College of Business. Coming from Beirut, Lebanon, she always enjoys trying out new things and is an avid travel lover. She hopes to take her readers on her journey as she discovers new lifestyles and navigates new cities. She can be reached at [email protected] or via Twitter @akikikrista

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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