eating disorders, vulnerability, isolation, and physical distancing
eating disorders, vulnerability, isolation, and physical distancing

I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability lately. I think there are two ways to experience vulnerability: you can feel vulnerable, in the sense that you are uncomfortable, perhaps feel unsafe or exposed, or maybe emotionally raw… and you can be vulnerable, in the sense that you are at risk or susceptible to a threat. I imagine we’re all experiencing some degree of vulnerability right now, whether it’s from the physical threat of illness, or the sensations and feelings that arise due to that threat. We both are, and likely feel, vulnerable.

Now, I’ve also been thinking a lot about how this newfound vulnerability affects people with existing mental health conditions. I know there are many people who struggle a great deal more than me, but I can’t help but analyze my own experience as someone with an eating disorder history and anxiety problem in this time of isolation and quarantine.

Like many people, I’ve been experiencing a lot of fluctuating feelings of stress and anxiety. In the best of times (i.e. in non-pandemic regular life) these feelings tend to be their strongest around meal times and before sleeping (I have a history of both anorexia and insomnia). With the increased level of baseline anxiety that’s been firing up the old Panic Machine (i.e. my brain), these meal- and sleep-time anxiety feelings have also increased in severity. These heightened sensations of anxiety have left me more vulnerable - more susceptible - to the negative thought and behavioural patterns that were the hallmark of my eating disorder. Namely, obsessive worrying about food, extreme self-criticism, and (conversely) periods of totally apathy about everything.

Whenever I write a blog, I ask myself “WHY am I writing this?”. Often it’s because I have something I want to say to other people, or because I feel like I have something valuable I can offer. In this case, I’m writing about this for two reasons: 1) because it’s cathartic for me to admit to and tame the noise in my head, and 2) because if I’m feeling these things, then I bet others are as well… and we all know that eating disorders thrive in silence. So I guess this piece is for me, for other people who are managing an eating disorder, and for the people who are supporting those navigating a similar issue.

Now, why is managing an eating disorder more difficult in quarantine/isolation? Firstly, because of what I already talked about: increased levels of baseline anxiety amplify the negative feelings and behaviours that are associated with the disorder (at least, that’s proven true for me). As someone who has moved through the recovery phase and out the other side, I know that I am still at risk of falling into old habits when the stress is great enough. This definitely qualifies as a high-stress situation.

There are a few other specific reasons why managing an eating disorder (even for someone who has recovered) may be more challenging in quarantine. These are some of the things that I’ve found to be a challenge over the last three weeks:

  1. Food - which I try to take as relaxed of an approach to as possible - has become even more central to our lives. Limiting grocery shopping to once per week (and when we were in quarantine, doing this as an online shop) requires a lot of planning and a bit of rationing. Effectively, isolation has increased my preoccupation with food. Major risk factor for me. Additionally, a lot of the foods I find comforting and reliable have been sold out. Add to that the fact that I am practicing self-isolation in a 450sq ft apartment where the only living space is attached to the kitchen, and food is literally inescapable. 
  2. Decreased structure and things to do = a disruption in routine, which is a key element of management for me.
  3. Less baseline activity = more excess energy that doesn’t have an outlet, and is thus easily misinterpreted by the brain as anxious energy. 

These difficulties all make it harder than usual to deter eating disorder thought and behaviour patterns from resurfacing. And I’m sure the same can be said for everyone who has mental wellness challenges (i.e…. everyone), with respect to how the stress of this is causing an increase in negative or undesirable emotional responses. So I guess I want to remind everyone that if you’re having a hard time managing this, then you’re not alone. 

This is a time for us to be mindfully aware of how we’re feeling and thinking, and it’s a time for making use of the positive coping mechanisms we’ve developed. The positive coping mechanisms I’ve developed mostly involve physical activity in nature (it’s no coincidence that I’ve found a way to make mountain biking my career). I don’t have the vocabulary to adequately describe it, but exerting myself in the woods is the biggest factor in maintaining a state of equilibrium for me. And so of course, there’s an extra little dose of stress there right now because I’m aware that this coping mechanism could become inaccessible, depending on the course of the virus. As scared as I am of losing this resource, I understand that total lockdown may become a reality, as it has in other places in the world.

The point of writing about this isn’t to wallow or give in to these fears and difficulties, but to acknowledge them. If I acknowledge them, then I’ve created a situation where I can go on the offensive, as it were, and prepare alternative coping mechanisms to keep myself on track and mentally healthy. I’m working on that already: yoga, meditation, mindful cooking, daily journaling, escapist literature… these are all strategies that I know work, and I know I can lean on when needed.

Like I said earlier, the current situation has left me more vulnerable: it’s exposed some of my deeper weaknesses. But I’m not helpless, and neither are you! For me, it’s just about being a little more deliberate with my coping strategies and putting a little extra work in. I know there are a lot of you out there who are grappling with eating disorders, anxiety, body image issues, and stress and so I just wanted to remind you to: not emotionally isolate yourself from the support system you've built up, continue to ask for help, and believe in the strength and coping capacity you've cultivated. You are not alone if you're struggling/noticing an uptick in episodes or sticky patches/ experiencing these types of thoughts for the first time... and you are strong enough to manage this. As much as this has exposed some of my weaknesses and vulnerabilities, it's also reminded me of my own strength and resilience. We can do this!

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