‘Isolation has intensified my food anxieties. Here’s how I’m dealing’

Self-isolation can be triggering for those with disordered eating patterns, as Stephanie Nuzzo discovered while in lockdown in New York City. She spoke to experts and survivors to find a way through…

I clearly remember the day I started taking the COVID-19 crisis seriously. Infections were increasing, and my roommates and I knew self-quarantine was coming, so we headed to the grocery store to stock up on food.

I remember that day because it was scary, and I was unsure what the situation ahead entailed. But also, because I felt anxious about the items that were going into our shopping trolley.

Watching the packets of pasta; bags of rice, and cans of beans pile up, a panic began to rise within me.

“I can’t eat like this,” I thought.

It feels strange typing these words when I’m aware that people’s lives and livelihoods are at risk right now. But I’ve long had a complicated relationship with food. And my obsession with weight has been one of my many sources of stress during the coronavirus crisis.

It’s not behaviour I’m proud of. But it’s happening, and I’m certainly not the only one. There are one million Australians who are currently living with an eating disorder, and an experience like quarantine is likely to be challenging for all of them.

So, to shed some light on this struggle and the best ways to manage it, I decided to chat with some experts in the field.

I spoke with Dr Jake Linardon, a research fellow at Deakin University; Lexi Crouch, an eating disorder survivor who is an ambassador for Eating Disorders QLD and the Butterfly Foundation, and food addiction therapist and eating psychology coach Rachel Foy.

Here’s what I learnt.

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Isolation impacts our relationships with food

“We know that periods of self-isolation have a detrimental effect on food, eating and other weight control behaviours,” Dr Linardon said.

He explained that isolation can bring out feelings like fear, loneliness and anxiety; emotions that many of us try desperately to avoid. “Unfortunately, many people use food or other unhealthy weight control behaviours as methods for coping with these adverse emotions,” he continued.

But emotions aren’t the only disruptive element at play. Crouch explained that self-quarantine also impacts routine and access to support systems – both of which can trigger harmful behaviours. “Eating disorders and food anxiety thrive in isolation,” she said. “…people disconnect from their usual support structures and engage in unhealthy behaviours as a response to wanting to ‘feel in control’.”

To help manage this, Crouch suggested trying to follow a daily routine as well as prioritising quality interactions with your support network over social media feeds, that breed insecurity. This is not the time to be focusing on #fitspo and cleanse diets; it’s a time for compassion.

Break down the idea of “forbidden” foods

If bulk-buying supplies is exacerbating negative feelings towards certain food types, Dr Linardon suggested slowly re-introducing those items into your diet in small doses. “Let me tell you – no food in isolation causes weight gain,” he said. “This is a false belief that you must change.”

Dr Linardon stressed that by including “forbidden” foods in your diet, you’ll begin to see there is no harm in eating them. “This exposure strategy will, over time, help change your faulty beliefs, allowing you to have a healthier relationship with food.”

Manage the urge to adopt disordered habits with planning and mindfulness

Our lives look very different right now. We’re moving less; stressing more; there’s uncertainty in the air. For people living with food anxiety or eating disorders, these changes can set off a desire to reduce food intake, to binge eat, or to exercise compulsively.

To help work through some of those compulsions, Foy suggested using mindfulness techniques.

“Finding something which allows you to process those feelings is very important,” she said. “This is a perfect time to experiment with things like meditation and journaling… I often encourage my clients to start focusing on their breath…”

Crouch (who is also a nutritionist) added that given the circumstances, we should all be going easy on ourselves. But if these impulses come up, try to counter them with a balanced approach to food: ensure you aren’t depriving yourself; that you’re listening to your body, and that you’re planning regular, healthy meals.

Ask for support

When it comes to asking for help, each of the experts pointed out that the “right” time is whenever your relationship with food begins to impact you.

“Many people think that you have to have a serious eating disorder or exercise addition to warrant asking for help,” said Foy. But if you’re noticing harmful habits, or negative feelings, it’s always worth addressing them – especially at time like this.

You haven’t failed if your body changes

Let’s take a moment to recognise the situation we’re dealing with, here. We’re (mostly) locked in our homes. Separated from loved ones. Possibly without work. Definitely without enough stimulation. People are losing their lives.

This is hard, folks.

So, remember: if you come out the other side of this and your body looks different, you have not failed. If you’ve got your health, then honey, you are surviving. And that’s the only thing that matters right now. Read over that line until it sinks in for you. I know I’m going to.

If you need support or somebody to talk to, please contact the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673.