Some 30 million Amer-icans will experience an eating disorder during the course of their lifetime, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), which has seen a 74% increase in calls to its helpline during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Those numbers are eye-opening,” said Abby Griesbach, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at the ThedaCare Behavioral Health Center in Menasha. “It’s important to note that not all who struggle with food and/or body image issues meet the criteria for an eating disorder. Many people struggle with disordered eating or a disordered body image that comes from underlying problems in their lives.”
She defined an eating disorder as “maladaptive coping skills that are developed to deal with stressors in one’s life”. People, for whatever reasons, develop eating habits that help them feel better ‘in the moment’.
“Those habits often are unhealthy and can have severe consequences both physically and emotionally,” she said. “When you’re engaging in eating disorders, you’re not addressing a problem in your life.”
Griesbach identified the most common eating dis-orders:
Anorexia nervosa – re-stricting food intake.
Bulimia nervosa – bing-ing and purging food via vomiting, excessive exercise or use of laxatives.
Binge eating disorder – eating an excessive amount of food in a short period of time. There is no purging involved.
Orthorexia – an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy.
She explained when a preoccupation with food takes over your life and takes away your focus from your family, friends, your job or your health – when your relationship with food is impinging on your happiness and your relationships, when you are giving an unhealthy amount of attention to food – those are signs that you have a problem that’s becoming a disorder.
“There is often a misconception that for one to struggle with an eating disorder you must look a certain way or be a certain size; that is not the case,” she said. “People with eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes.”
Griesbach noted that often with eating disorders, instead of dealing with a problem in our lives in a healthy way, we engage in an unhealthy eating behavior that helps us numb our emotions. If we don’t deal with our emotions, they build and build to the point they can create and potentially develop into an anxiety disorder, anxiety attacks or depression.
She noted there is frequently a high comorbidity rate between eating disorders and mood disorders.
“Eating disorders are some of the most difficult disorders to recover from,” she explained. “If the problem was with alcohol or drugs, we would work on no longer drinking or using drugs. Eating disorders are different because we are surrounded with food every single day, and we need it to survive.”
She noted the current coronavirus pandemic is creating increased stress for everyone, which can trigger unhealthy behaviors.
“Whether it’s social distancing which can create more isolation from friends and family, working from home, dealing with changes in our routine, we are all dealing with different issues that create stress,” she said. “For those who have developed eating disorder behaviors to cope with stress, it makes sense that this time would be especially difficult for this population, making them particularly more vulnerable.”
She offered the following suggestions to cope with that increased stress:
Reach out for help – to family, friends, medical providers or therapists. “If you’re struggling, speak up and ask for help,” she said. “Share with your support system what feels helpful and what doesn’t because they may not always know how to help.”
Maintain good social connections with family and friends. Right now, those connections might have to be virtual, over the phone or a distanced walk together outdoors. Find a way to maintain connections and keep active.
Create an action plan. Prepare. “Know in advance what your triggers are and how you can address them in healthy ways,” she suggested.
Maintain a routine and structure in your day. Get up and go to bed at the similar times. Eat at regular intervals. Overall, make sure there’s balance in your day – balance with food, exercise, sleep and socialization. Set a schedule for yourself.
Exercise regularly. “We might not feel comfortable going to gyms or fitness centers right now, and that is okay,” she said. “We can walk, ride a bike, go swimming and do yoga. Get creative to find ways to keep moving.”
Be aware of shifts in your mood and take action to avoid becoming depressed, anxious, etc. Reach out for help; talk about your feelings with friends, a counselor or medical providers.
Engage in self-care. “Find things you enjoy and give you pleasure,” she said. “Listen to your favorite music, read a book, take a bubble bath – whatever makes you feel good.”
“We are all responsible for our own mental health,” Griesbach said. “We want people to feel comfortable reaching out when they need help. I hope those with eating disorders feel empowered to lean on their friends and families for support, because managing the disorder can be life changing.”