• For those with existing mental health challenges, like eating disorders and body image issues, the Covid-19 lockdown may bring particular challenges

  • Disordered eating and body image specialist Harriet Frew shares her three tips if coronavirus is triggering a bad relationship with food

  • Our therapists are offering online services during lockdown – start your search here

The world as you know it has been turned upside down, in a few short weeks. Anxiety, panic and uncertainty rule and this is an incredibly difficult time.

And it’s a particularly challenging if you’re struggling with disordered eating and poor body image. Controlling food and weight are already existing coping strategies for underlying distress. The current contagious and heightened anxiety, not surprisingly can add fuel to an already burning fire, exacerbating your symptoms.

You might be worried about getting access to your normal and safe foods.

You might be eating less or more, in reaction to the stress of it all.

You might feel worried about self-isolating and not being able to exercise.

You might be stuck inside with family or friends, feeling significant strain on these relationships.

So how to cope through this tricky time?


1. Access to your safe foods

It’s a reality that you might not be able to access your regular, safe foods in the way that you normally would. Going to the supermarket may have become extremely stressful, busy and over stimulating. You might feel massively anxious and panicky. This is understandable. You don’t need to feel guilty for having these feelings.

Stop, pause and take a breath. It is helpful to accept that things are going to be more difficult for a few weeks. 

Trust that you will find a way through. It does not have to be a catastrophe.

Trust that you have the resources to problem solve and keep yourself safe.

Trust that you can rely on others and ask for their support too.

You will need to adjust a little. You can do some meal planning and reach out to a friend to help with this. It could be beneficial to think ahead before going shopping, or sending someone on your behalf, it if feels too much.

It could even be an opportunity to push yourself, out of your existing comfort zone, to experiment and try different foods. You may survive this considerably better than you imagine.


2. Bingeing on stockpiled foods

You may have cupboards bulging with dry goods, in anticipation of the isolated weeks ahead. This may provoke intense anxiety, triggering fears of binge eating and losing control around these foods.

To help prevent this, ensure that your body physiology is stable, by eating regularly and a balance of food groups, and at intervals throughout the day (ideally three meals and three snacks). Do not restrict or deprive yourself of food, as this will absolutely render you vulnerable to binge eating.

Don’t go crazy with the stockpiling of food, if this is hugely triggering for you. It is also likely unnecessary and disadvantages others. Trust that there will be enough.

Being socially isolated; in close contact with family members and losing your daily routine: these can all potentially trigger feelings of anxiety, loneliness, boredom or upset. You will be vulnerable to emotional eating and using food to comfort of self-soothe.

Work to be aware of your feelings and to tune into them with self-compassion and understanding. You might need some distraction activities on hand and a self-care toolkit, ready for challenging moments. Remember, that it’s okay to set boundaries and say no, if needed. You might feel drawn into a role of caring for everyone else, but remember that your needs are important too.


3. Fear of weight gain due to limited activity

Many people with and without disordered eating are talking openly about fears of weight gain. This can be hugely triggering if you have issues with food.

It’s a reality that your regular routine and exercise patterns are going to change for a while. Again, some radical acceptance of this is incredibly helpful. It places you in a position to have some control and a problem solving approach to the situation.

Your body is not going to drastically change, in a few weeks. You don’t need to catastrophise.

If you’ve been compulsively over-exercising, this could be a time to gently address this and begin to tolerate a new level of activity. An obsession with exercise is often a weary and exhausting thing, with a complete absence of joy. Take the chance to challenge this now.

Think about some movement daily, with a focus on the mental health benefits, such as improving mood, decreasing anxiety, better sleep and body image. Try and be creative and make it a happy experience, rather than a ‘should’. Maybe do an online workout, gardening or do some yoga in the front room.

You could write yourself a timetable and divide your day up into blocks. Time previously spent over-exercising could be directed towards social connections or enjoying an arts or crafts activity.

This is an incredibly tough time, if you’re struggling with disordered eating and body image. Work to self-care and consider how you can make the coming weeks, a little easier. Do stay connected and ask for help. Many counsellors are not offering on-line support; this could be a time to consider this.

Beat have published some further resources on this here and you could also check out a new podcast, Food Freedom Coach on Podbean.

Harriet Frew is a verified welldoing.org therapist specialising in eating disorders and body image issues. She is available for online therapy and is based in Cambridge.

Further reading

The benefits of being inside: my experience of quarantine

Welldoing.org's 8 mental health tips to combat coronavirus anxiety

Using CBT techniques to manage lockdown anxiety

5 signs of disordered eating

9 ways to stop binge eating today

9 ways counselling can help you overcome an eating disorder