Lockdowns trigger relapses for people with disordered eating

The coronavirus pandemic has already seen an alarming spike in demand for support around eating disorders and manager at the Butterfly Foundation, Danni Rowlands, said for some, the return of lockdown can mean the return of their illness.

“Over the past 12-18 months our helpline has seen not only an increase in people seeking support for the first time, but also an increase in people calling who are reporting a relapse or return of some or all of their eating disorder thinking and behaviours returning,” Ms Rowlands told 9news.com.au.

The reintroduction of COVID-19 lockdowns present a major challenge for people with a history of disordered eating. (Brook Mitchell/Getty)

The combination of heightened stress levels, social isolation and increased health anxiety presents a significant challenge for those with a history of disordered eating.

“Eating disorders often develop as a way to cope with intense and negative experiences and emotions and for some people, this time can trigger hard feelings and emotions,” Ms Rowlands said.

“For someone who has experienced an eating disorder these, of course, can contribute to a return of eating disorder thinking and behaviours resurfacing, or in some cases causing a relapse.”

Ms Rowlands said it can be difficult for people to recognise signs of relapse and they can be both emotional and behavioural.

“Recovery from an eating disorder is a really personal thing,” she said.

“What someone may deem as recovered, another person may not.

“Eating disorders also thrive on keeping a person isolated and so it can be challenging to know if the thinking and behaviours are the eating disorder, as it may sound the same, or different to how it did in the past.

“The common warning signs that would have been present at the beginning of the person’s eating disorder may be present again.

“But it can also look and feel different too.”

Social isolation and increased anxiety are significant factors in relapse. (Nick Moir)

Red flags might include over-preoccupation with food, eating and cooking, restricting or over-eating behaviours to manage anxiety, an increasing obsession with exercise, and just generally being preoccupied with food, exercise, and the body, Ms Rowlands said.

Whatever the warning signs, and no matter how small they may seem, Ms Rowlands said it’s important to seek help sooner rather than later.

“If you’re feeling vulnerable at this time, now is the time to draw on those skills and strategies, to go back to basics and use what you have in your toolkit to support you,” she said.

“It is important to remember that you are human and that recovery can be fluid, it can move in different directions based on what life throws at you.

“But it is ok to say you are struggling, if you are.”

With screen time also on the rise during lockdown and more time to spend on social media, Ms Rowlands also suggested curating your pages to diversify the kinds of content you’re consuming.

Experts say curating your social media to include positive messages can be helpful in managing relapse.

“Add in humour and hobbies that make you feel good, listen to music that lifts your spirit up, write, journal write – do the hobbies and things that help you feel good,” she said.

Most importantly, Ms Rowlands said, “be kind to yourself”.

“Life is not linear and it’s important that recovery is also considered in this way, this can help to reduce the expectation and recovery ideal,” she said.

“It is a tough time for many, it’s great if you’re doing well and it’s ok if you’re not.

“You are a human being and lockdowns are not typical, natural or normal.

“Each and every lockdown, every day will bring about new feelings and emotions and also challenges.

“During each day, strive to do your best and put those protective barriers around you.”

If you or someone you know is concerned they are experiencing a relapse or struggling with an eating disorder, ReachOut’s National Helpline is open every day between 8am and 12 midnight AEST – call 1800 33 4673 (1800 ED HOPE), connect via webchat, or email support@butterfly.org.au.

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