Rock bottom: the colossal impact of Coronavirus lockdown on people with eating disorders

Lockdown and its accompanying stresses are difficult to handle at the best of times – but for people with eating disorders, it can be even harder.

Scarcity of food, lack of routine and anxiety can all play a part in triggering eating disorders and hampering recovery.

Celene Davis, an anorexia sufferer, only came to terms with his eating disorder after quarantine was imposed.

He said food scarcity, online jokes about gaining weight in quarantine and his deteriorating mental health meant he felt he had little power over his life.

“When I hit rock bottom I couldn’t bring myself to eat a single piece of candy per day,” he said.

Restricting his food intake became a way of gaining control. It was only when he was told by medical professionals that his body was shutting down that he realised how serious his anorexia had become.

“It got to the point where I’d fight with myself to get up and eat while I was too weak to stand.”

Celene Davis

Since the realisation, he has made the controversial decision to not seek treatment. As a trans Asian American, his eating disorder is tied to the sense of not looking “male” enough to be accepted by white people. He felt that going to a treatment centre without members of his community would do more harm than good.

After seeking advice from fellow East-Asians, he made the conscious choice to stop feeling guilty about eating. He said living in Chinatown and being able to eat his culture’s food was very healing.

“Quarantine has made me face the fact that I’ve got a very serious problem but also that through all of this, my community has been supporting me and I’m extremely eternally grateful,” he said.

Facts and Figures

According to a poll in an eating disorder support group, over 80% of sufferers said lockdown has made their eating disorder worse.

Pie chart showing percentage of answers to ‘Has lockdown impacted your eating disorder?’

Several elements of lockdown make it hard for people to maintain their recovery.

Empty supermarket shelves can be devastating for people with eating disorders who can no longer get the food they need.

Not being able to access foods which sufferers feel comfortable eating can lead to many skipping meals altogether.

Cat, a 16-year-old anorexia sufferer, said having to make food last longer made her feel selfish for eating.

“The idea that we have to make things last longer and use as little as possible makes me feel like I’m wasting valuable resources,” she said.

Being pregnant, Cat’s recovery is essential for her baby’s survival. She said reminding herself that she has someone else relying on her and that she needs food as much as everyone else helped her manage.

Online jokes about gaining weight in quarantine also put pressure on people with eating disorders to lose or maintain their current weight.

This can prompt a dangerous cycle of starvation and binge-eating, throwing people off track during their recovery.

Hope Virgo, who describes herself as in ‘ongoing recovery’ from anorexia, said she worries lockdown may impede people’s progress with recovery.

“It is a really challenging time for everyone – people with eating disorders will struggle with the fear of food and lack of routine in place.

“With food scarcity, it is important we ensure we are getting the food we need and feeling able to carry on with recovery,” she said.

Finding Online Support

Online resources can be key to maintaining recovery during lockdown.

In the last 60 days, membership of atypical eating disorder support group You don’t look like you have an eating disorder’ has risen by 50%.

Its moderation group has had to double in size to cope with its ever-growing membership, currently at over 1.5 thousand people.

Moderator Gabrielle Howard, 16, said it was no coincidence the group had swelled in size since lockdown.

“I think the virus has led to people seeking other forms of support. I think it’s great that people can use the group as a safe space,” she said.

Dr Lorna Richards, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Woking and Life Works, stressed the importance of online support and regular social contact.

“People have worked so hard to get to this point; it’s a really difficult time. There are lots of resources out there, so try to maintain hope,”

Dr Lorna Richards

She recommended people use the internet to their advantage to keep in touch with friends and find support.

Hope suggested Beat Eating Disorders, Hub of Hope and the Samaritans for anyone looking for help.

Dr Richards and Hope both emphasised the need for a routine. They suggested people plan their days, making sure to factor in some social contact.

Advice from professionals, people in recovery and those struggling has shone a crucial spotlight on the issue of eating disorders during quarantine.

The takeaway message remains to keep a routine in place, practise self-compassion and look for support from friends and family during this difficult time.

If you, or someone you love, is struggling with an eating disorder, please seek guidance from a medical professional or a suitable support network.

For more on this topic, read: Coronavirus lockdown is plunging people with eating disorders into deeper crisis by Phoebe Davis.