Tag Archives: bulimia

How a global pandemic can trigger an eating disorder

Everyone is managing a changing world! It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and I’m writing this blog to give insight into the world of eating disorders, not to say “my struggle is worse than yours” but to say, you never know what someone else is going to through – most people have hidden struggles and it’s not always obvious what’s going to trigger someone’s difficulties. Measures imposed by our governments have been vital to keep us safe but at what cost?

Change in routine

A routine for many people can indicate safety. Most of us find a change in routine difficult but someone with an eating disorder, routine can be the difference between them eating enough/regularly each day or turning to disordered behaviours for comfort.

Encouragement to exercise everyday

When in eating disorder recovery, exercise can be difficult to manage. Many struggle with exercise addiction as a way to manage weight and recovery from this may include not exercising or restricting exercise. The UK government’s lockdown rules allowed 1 trip outside each day for exercise. If one of the few things you’re “allowed” to do each day is exercise, it can feel like you’re being told you “should” exercise everyday and this only adds to the battle already going on inside your head about what your should and shouldn’t be doing. How many adults actually exercise everyday?! Not many, but for someone recovering from an eating disorder, this is a minefield!

Supermarket stress

Recovering from an eating disorder can include a strict diet plan. Panic buying lead to limited stock and then restrictions on items we could buy. While to the average family, these restrictions may have been inconvenient and caused them to use alternatives. This may have caused chaos to someone with an eating disorder. If the food item you need is not available, this could have triggered days without food altogether. While the queues at the supermarket are essential to keep numbers within at safe levels, this could cause extremely high levels of stress for someone who already finds the trip anxiety provoking.

Encouraged obsessive actions

While washing our hands is vital to prevent spread of Covid-19, with the UK government telling us to wash our hands often, this can play into the obsessive compulsive mind of someone struggling with an eating disorder prompting further ritualistic behaviours around food.

The wrong type of “vulnerable”

Those most at risk of dying from Covid-19 have been put on a vulnerable list in order to ensure we can keep them safe from catching the virus. This has meant that some support systems are no longer available for other people who usually use them. For example, people who usually use the online supermarket delivery systems haven’t been able to get slots. Going to a supermarket, for some people recovering from an eating disorder, is simply impossible. What do you do if you can’t get a delivery slot, because they’re reserved for other people?

Lack of therapy or online therapy

Therapy is a vital part of eating disorder recovery. Some agencies have completely shut down due to lack of resources. Some, fortunately have been able to continue online. Some people may prefer this and there are benefits, such as not having to travel. However, at times technical hitches can delay sessions and talking through a computer means some subtle communication is lost. I’m not alone in having a violent dislike of seeing myself on screen and a therapists sensitive use of physical touch is completely lost.

While the social distancing and lockdown measures have been vital to keep everyone safe – the repercussions on those with internal mental struggles, I have no doubt, without additional support, will be extremely long lasting.

Young person looking at their phone

Can a film about eating disorders be made “responsibly”?

Recently, while in conversation about the good, the bad and the ugly of mental health portrayal in film, I said, “although it divided the eating disorder (ED) community, I thought , To The Bone was a good movie”. The person I was speaking to responded saying that they didn’t think it had been made responsibly because it showed eating disordered behaviours. “Fair enough”, I thought, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Read my thoughts on To The Bone here.

To The Bone character Ellen looking concerned at weighing scales

I’ve been reflecting on this and I’m wondering why ED’s are treated differently to other mental illnesses when it comes to portraying behaviours in the media.

There seems to be a fear that ED behaviours can be caught and that if the media gives hits and tips, a “how to…” develop an ED, maybe there’ll be an epidemic. No one thinks that a portrayal of a psychotic episode with someone experiencing a delusion they can fly will lead to an epidemic of teens jumping out of windows, pretending they have bipolar disorder!

I’ll spell it out, if you show someone doing sit-ups, running, counting calories or carrying out food rituals, you’re not going to give anyone ideas about how to get anorexia. If someone is predisposed to anorexia, they will be able to come up with these weight loss schemes all by themselves!

Board of sliced food

I’m not naive though, I know young people can be influenced by what they see. We are seeing a concerning rise in self harming and we need to consider whether talking openly about these things is making such behaviours seem more acceptable. We’re in a precarious position in trying to raise awareness of all mental illnesses. While we want to normalise discussion of mental illness, it’s important that mental ill health does not become normal!

Of course, there needs to be careful consideration when depicting any illness; there needs to be sensitivity given we’re making other people’s pain into, let’s face it, entertainment.

It is important to recognise these imagines may be triggering for people who are already suffering but there comes a point where it’s your responsibility to decide if you can manage this. The media company can put a warning at the beginning of the content, they can do no more. If someone is in the mood to trigger themselves, there’s plenty of content available.

Of course, care has to be taken when showing particular behaviours to show the reality and not to glamourise it. Anorexia isn’t about getting thin, then getting care and attention. Doing sit ups with a boney spine, you will get painful bruises. I even started to get pressure sores on my buttocks. Also, there’s the everso attractive lanugo – excess hair to keep your body warm. Nothing about eating disorders is pleasant. To The Bone showed the ugly side to eating disorders, the guilt, the shame, the grief, the physical and emotional turmoil, it was not pretty.

Young lady liking sadly at a small slice of bread and glass of water

If someone has a genetic susceptibility and environmental factors lead to them being on the cusp of an eating disorder, they will not need hits and tips. I, for example, had no media input to my eating disorder, I naturally knew how to lose weight, I cut food out of my diet and I moved more. Food rituals develop as a way to reconcile external pressures with internal turmoil – if I absolutely had to eat in front of someone, if I cut my food into factors of 3, it was more manageable (for example).

If I’d watched a film depicting eating disorders accurately when I was struggling as a teen, I think I would have felt less alone and might have felt able to seek help sooner.

We’re relying in mainstream media to bring the unmentionable and the unexplainable into the open. If they don’t show behaviours, if they gloss over them with clever edits and subtle hints, they’re not giving an accurate portrayal and this would be unhelpful and they’d be criticised. It’s never going to be easy and it’s going to divide opinion but at least we’re talking about it!

Eating disorders pictogram

EDAW myth busting! #4

This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week and this year I’m taking some time to bust some myths!

Eating disorders only occur in young people

A YouGov poll commissioned by Beat found that 60% of respondents thought eating disorders predominantly affected young people. It is true that eating disorders occur in adolescents and children as young as 6 years old but the largest group of sufferers is adults.

A myth like this perpetuates the idea that eating disorders are a fad or a phase and that young people will grow out of it. This is harmful for young people, as it risks them not getting the full support they need but it also put adults at risk of not getting any support.

An adult may suffer a relapse or they may experience an eating disorder for the first time; triggering events may be parenting, work capabilities, relationships difficulties or bereavement. Specific difficulties may include events that target identity or changes in bodily appearance such as:

  • Pregnancy
  • Children leaving home (empty nest)
  • Slowing metabolism leading to weight gain (middle-aged spread)
  • Menopause
  • Retirement
  • Age related appetite decrease (important to differentiate biological causes from mental and emotional appetite decrease)
  • Physical illness (relationship between physical and mental illness can be complicate)

Co-morbid mental illnesss such as depression or anxiety are common.

It’s important that an eating disorder is recognised in an older adult. The physical consequences, such as nutrient deficiency and malnutrition, are dangerous as their bodies cannot manage the physical strain as a younger body might be able to. Older people are more at risk of developing diabetes and osteoporosis, conditions which can be severely exacerbated by an eating disorder.