Table of Contents
- Five signs that an eating disorder is coming back or becoming worse
- Isolation and secrecy
- Preoccupation with food
- Distorted view of body shape/weight
- Fear of gaining weight or pursuit of thinness
- Physical changes
- Five ways to help a friend who’s struggling with an eating disorder
- Talk to them
- Find a specialist
- Educate yourself
- Look after yourself
- Hold on to hope
- How to get your Metro newspaper fix
The isolation of lockdown has been especially tough on those struggling with mental illness (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
But behind closed doors, thousands have been struggling with food in an entirely different way — battling eating disorders that have been fuelled by isolation and anxiety.
Their plights were highlighted by the death last week of former Big Brother star Nikki Grahame, aged 38, after a three-decade battle with anorexia. Just weeks before Nikki’s death, her mother Susan Grahame told This Morning she blamed lockdown.
‘The isolation. She couldn’t see anyone’, she said. ‘She was cut off, spending too much time on her own, and nothing to think about other than food.’
It’s a familiar story across all age groups, says psychotherapist Kerrie Jones, founder of specialist eating disorder clinic Orri — which saw a 90 per cent rise in enquiries during the first lockdown.
‘Eating disorders really thrive on isolation,’ she says. ‘We’ve seen a huge impact in numbers of young people, particularly, who are presenting.
‘So many people I speak to say, “I look at my friends and they can cope and I can’t. They all order a Domino’s while I count every single calorie and feel tremendous anxiety.”’
The increasing reliance on social media during lockdown hasn’t helped, Kerrie adds: ‘If you’re spending hours in your bedroom constantly scrolling on social media and not having normal conversations with other people, distraction isn’t occurring. Much of that content is acting as a trigger, from how to work-out, how to diet, watching a food channel or seeing images of people having fun and looking perfect.
‘That loss of social connection particularly hits those in their 20s and 30s because it’s such a productive stage of life, building careers and going out to meet people romantically.’
Lucy, 24, from London says: ‘Before lockdown things were OK. I have great flatmates and friends, and get a buzz out of work and living in the city. I had suffered with anxiety and negative body image for as long as I could remember, but London life was distracting and it was easy to push anxiety aside by filling my calendar with ‘stuff’ to do.
‘A few months before lockdown, me and my boyfriend of six years decided to split. So when lockdown hit, working within the four walls of my bedroom felt suffocating and I found the lack of activity almost panic-inducing. I felt jittery with anxiety. My flat and even my flatmates felt claustrophobic.
The anxiety can be overwhelming (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
‘This overwhelming anxiety got channelled into my food and the number on the scales. The wellness “gurus” I followed on Instagram inspired me to cut different things out of my diet. My portions got smaller and more tightly controlled. All of this was some obscure attempt to feel a semblance of control over my life. Pretending to hold it all together was exhausting and I found myself withdrawing more from my flatmates each day.’
Lucy was referred to Orri’s clinic in London after her sister noticed her dramatic weight loss. She was enrolled on a four-day online programme that included one-to-one therapy, dietetic sessions, group therapy sessions and yoga and mindfulness classes.
‘Occupational therapists gave me helpful tips for de-escalating myself during moments of panic,’ says Lucy. ‘Having spent so much time at home, my flat had begun to feel so toxic. Working online, I was able to heal these spaces by associating them with kindness and small glimpses of tranquillity.
‘I started to realise that my eating disorder wasn’t just rooted in an obsession with food. Rather, it was much more complex than this. I realised I had been carrying with me incredibly low self-esteem for ages.’
Other factors are at play too, says Kerrie.
‘At the beginning of the first lockdown there were lots of messages about bulk buying and people being greedy. But a lot of anorexic clients have a fear of greed — and they will reason “I don’t want to take something if someone else deserves it more.”
‘People can get well and if you get the right support early, that makes a huge impact. Don’t believe it’s just a phase. If you’re worried about someone else or yourself, seek help — reach out to a trusted therapist or dietician, or a friend.’
Kerrie responded to lockdown by moving Orri’s therapy programme online. ‘We use a healthcare Zoom platform where everyone has their own stream and an individual programme. Each client has an individual menu plan and we have meals on Zoom, where everyone eats together. Across the service, we’ve been really adaptive, and some NHS services have too. We haven’t seen the full impact of lockdown yet on eating disorders. Difficult times lie ahead.’
Five signs that an eating disorder is coming back or becoming worse
Isolation and secrecy
Eating disorders thrive in isolation. You might notice someone retreating back into themselves, avoiding social interaction, spending an increasing amount of time alone and not communicating as much.
Preoccupation with food
You might notice someone becoming more occupied by food — starting to count calories, overly planning meals wellin advance or appearing increasingly concerned about the preparation of food.
Distorted view of body shape/weight
They may be making increasingly frequent, negative comments about their body weight or shape. They might be constantly checking their reflection and touching certain parts of their body — ‘body checking’.
Fear of gaining weight or pursuit of thinness
Cutting out entire food groups (such as carbohydrates or fats), becoming obsessed with ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food or healthy or unhealthy foods, becoming vegan or vegetarian, or following another diet that restricts certain food types can be a means of removing fear foods.
A significant change in weight is important to take notice of. You might notice they get light-headed when getting off the sofa and complain of digestive issues. Noticing changes in someone’s skin tone and general health is vital.
Five ways to help a friend who’s struggling with an eating disorder
Talk to them
Pick a time when tensions aren’t running high and when the other person appears receptive. Broach the topic gently, keeping in mind that eating disorders are not about food. Rather, food is a symptom of often much more complex, underlying causes, with emotional distress often at the root. Approach the conversation with compassion.
Find a specialist
An eating disorder psychotherapist, psychologist or specialist clinic, combined with a specialist dietitian, can help people understand more about their eating disorder and take steps towards recovery. The eating disorders charity Beat offers a variety of online services.
The person may be very confused by what they’re experiencing, and demonstrating a degree of understanding may serve to bridge the distance between you.
Look after yourself
Boundaries are needed to ensure you tend to your own needs and protect your energy.
Hold on to hope
Everyone’s recovery journey is different but holding on to hope keeps people going in their journey.
Orri is an eating disorder day care treatment service in London, orri-uk
If you suspect you, a family member or friend has an eating disorder, contact Beat on 0808 801 0677 or at [email protected], for information and advice on the best way to get appropriate treatment
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