Sophie Finn examines the side-effects of the lockdown ‘health buzz’ on those made vulnerable by eating disorders.
Food has been a massive focus throughout the pandemic, from the baking craze of the first lockdown to an increased interest in take-out food and meal kit deliveries in the latter ones. However, what has characterised every stage of the pandemic is the increased interest in health and fitness, with many people going on a ‘health-buzz’. Although this growth in focus on health and fitness may appear constructive, the flip side is that the increased mental strain of lockdown may push individuals to engage in unhealthy eating practices, or cause a relapse in those who have experience with eating disorders.
The pandemic has caused significant challenges to mental health across the country. Research conducted by RTÉ last October found that 33% of people in Ireland have reported increased mental health struggles since the beginning of the pandemic. The virus and consequent lockdowns have resulted in increased isolation, fear, and anxiety about the future, the strain of which may lead many individuals to find themselves in vulnerable positions where dieting and healthy eating can easily become dangerous. A study by the Journal of Eating Disorders has found that in the UK the pandemic is having a “profound, negative impact” on individuals with experience of eating disorders.
Since the beginning of the first lockdown in March 2020 there has been a pervading message to do something constructive with one’s time, and many turned to health and fitness. Social media and television have been permeated with information and posts encouraging increased exercise, from 5K challenges for charity, to at-home workouts hosted by celebrities. While confined to home many people spent more time using social media and watching television. A study by Deloitte indicated 34% reported increased social network usage during lockdowns, therefore these posts received increased attention and often became viral trends. Although these trends are apparently positive, for individuals in an already vulnerable mental health state this encouragement may become pressurising or result in triggering unhealthy eating or exercising habits.
Bodywhys is a national voluntary organisation which supports those suffering with eating disorders. Last year, in response to the increased challenge of the pandemic on individuals’ mental health, they launched a new website to promote positive body images. They also offer information and advice on Covid-19 and body image. The charity outlines that the change of routine brought on by the virus can be very challenging to sufferers of eating disorders, as well as identifying exposure to exercise and diet posts on social media and the increased need for video calls as factors which may cause significant body image stress. When asked by The University Observer if diet culture and the health and fitness ‘buzzes’ during the pandemic resulted in increasing difficulty with food relationships, a representative of the organisation agreed that it “is a factor that has been highlighted by Bodywhys service users, the Bodywhys youth panel and also in relevant research”.
Bodywhys outlined that the Coronavirus has led to “four key challenges for people with eating disorders”. The pandemic has “intensified people’s behaviour, thoughts and feelings and ultimately, their lived experience of eating disorders”, for example, the feeling of lack of control due to the lack of routine. Another issue is “communication challenges”, with friends, family or a partner who may not understand the struggles people are going through. The third challenge is the effect the pandemic is having on people's experience of “recovery and relapse” from an eating disorder, with old disordered thought patterns re-emerging in some instances. The final challenge is that “the environment has become more stressful”, which is a mixture of factors such as “diet talk, fitness routines on social media, a focus on constant self-improvement and causal food or weight talk from others, living alone or not having sufficient alone time”. Many have described a “pressure to be better and have a plan”, when in reality “they are just trying to manage day-to-day”.
For people experiencing body image concerns, or feeling pressured to engage in constant self-improvement the organisation said that it’s important to “acknowledge” that Covid has impacted our lives and daily routines significantly, and being out of routine can be very difficult. Exercise and food choices may be different and this can have an impact on body image, saying it's “important to allow ourselves to feel whatever emotions come at this time, not push them away”. Bodywhys emphasises the importance of being kind to oneself if it is difficult to stick to a usual exercise routine; “these are stressful times and focusing on what will make us feel good and bring us comfort is more important”.
Dr Triona Byrne, a Clinical Psychologist and Clinical lead manager for the UCD student counselling service, described to The University Observer how “food and eating is one of the ways we comfort ourselves”, and in these uncertain times meals provide a routine and become the “central focus” of our lives, which she explained can be very difficult for people who struggle with their relationship with food and body image. Byrne described how the “emotional impact of lockdown” has affected motivation, explaining that “the desire to self-improve can be coming from a place of distress and self-criticism, rather than pleasure and enhancing health and wellbeing”. The organisation advises those struggling with an eating disorder during the pandemic to, amongst other things, limit media and appearance-related consumption.
Dr Byrne advises that people who feel they are struggling with food or over-exercising as a means of coping with distress should reach out and talk to people they trust. She further advises that if the issue is affecting studies or health and wellbeing, students can consult with the UCD Student Health and Counselling Services. She highlighted the Body Image programme on Silvercloud, which is an evidenced-based online Cognitive Counselling Website. For further advice on how to cope and how to seek help, Dr Byrne recommended Bodywhys, and the HSE Eating Disorders Self Care and Information App, but stressed that this is not a replacement for medical advice, outflinging that to access health care support for eating disorders you should contact your local GP.
Ruarí Power, Welfare Officer of UCD Students’ Union told The University Observer that the SU “recognise[s] that the pandemic has resulted in massive anxiety and disruption to the lives of students and their normal routine”. Power further emphasised that students who have a difficult relationship with food already deal with “fear, panic and difficulty, which has potentially been intensified by the uncertainty surrounding Covid”. He acknowledged that “developing a normal routine and maintaining exercise patterns has been a struggle for everyone for the last few months”.
Power acknowledged that suspension or changes to delivery methods of support services have “added another challenge for students with Eating Disorders”, stressing that it is “imperative that the HSE Eating Disorder Services Model of Care for Ireland is implemented fully as a matter of urgency, along with a clear commitment from Government to continue provision of funding going forward for the implementation of Sharing the Vision to build capacity in our public mental health services”. Power added that the SU will be writing to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly on the matter.
If you have been affected, or know someone affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, please contact the Bodywhys helpline at 01 2107906 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A body image programme is also freely available to all UCD students at - www.ucd.silvercloudhealth.com