'A perfect storm': Why the pandemic has made it harder for people with eating disorders

Isolation, uncertainty and fear have heightened the stress of living with an eating disorder.
Jokes and memes about gaining “COVID weight” circulated early and often in the pandemic.
Jokes and memes about gaining “COVID weight” circulated early and often in the pandemic.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

Stephanie Parker has lived with a variety of eating disorders (EDs) most of her life. Leading into the pandemic, the 34-year old producer from New York City was in a fairly good place with her EDs, not requiring much outside support to stay on top of her health. When the pandemic hit, however, Parker spiraled.

“I have anxiety and OCD, in addition to my eating disorders,” Parker explained. “When I had to go into quarantine, I was locked down in a very tiny space and everything just hit at once.”

Unfortunately, Parker is in good company. Her experience has been a shared one during the pandemic, the stressors of which serve to overwhelm people with eating disorders. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports that it experienced a 75% uptick in call volume to its help lines in March and April. Even today, that number stands at 70% over the norm.

A study of 1,000 American and Danish individuals with eating disorders backs up this trend. More than 60% of the sample with anorexia nervosa, for instance, reported increased restriction and fears about being able to find foods consistent with their meal plan. Respondents with bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder also reported increases in their binge-eating episodes and urges to binge.

The pandemic has been something of a perfect storm of uncertainty, cultural pressures and isolation, said Claire Mysko, CEO at NEDA. “Those who were already actively struggling with an ED or those in recovery are particularly vulnerable to the added stressors and messages of the pandemic,” she said. “We’ve got pictures of empty store shelves, a lack of access to normal supports and added cultural pressures coming together at once.”

I’m listening to the news and reading social media and feeling like there is no way out. My disorder went from manageable to something completely out of control.

Stephanie Parker

Jokes and memes about gaining “COVID weight” circulated early and often in the pandemic, said Mysko, and served as the wrong message for the ED population. “There was also a good deal of marketing on health and wellness, which adds to the stress on the ED community,” she pointed out.

Parker said that early on in the pandemic, she felt trapped and began to feel afraid to eat. “I’m listening to the news and reading social media and feeling like there is no way out,” she said. “My disorder went from manageable to something completely out of control.”

The first step to getting help, said Parker, was acknowledging she was in trouble and needed support. “I knew I needed to find resources I could trust so that I could work on my behaviors,” she said.

In her case, that came in the form of virtual contact with her therapist and an online support group for women of color. “I found this group that is very open about their struggles, and it resonated with me,” she said. “They could understand the impact being a woman of color on this disease.”

This has been particularly key for Parker in a summer where stressors have been compounded by heightened racial and socioeconomic divides. “My ED is based in trauma, and having a group of people who can discuss race-based trauma has helped,” she explained.

Mysko said that having an understanding of the fact that EDs don’t exist in a vacuum is important to finding help. “It’s so much more than an obsession with food,” she said, “and is very connected to other illnesses. It’s part of a broader mental health conversation.”

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Coping with an eating disorder in quarantine

Parker is making progress in her struggles, thanks to therapy and her support group. Mysko points out that finding connection, as Parker has done, is key to recovery, particularly during the isolation of the pandemic. “We’re working hard to provide a source of connection to ED sufferers,” she said. “We have a full page of resources on our website, including a video series, that we update regularly to help connect people to therapists and support systems.”

Mysko wants people to understand that the pandemic doesn’t mean that recovery is canceled — quite the opposite. “If you’re in treatment, please continue, even if that means telehealth for the time being,” she said. “If you think you might have a problem, reach out for help.”

As the weather turns colder and forces people back indoors, both Mysko and Parker worry about the impact on ED sufferers. “I’m working on a plan,” said Parker, in anticipation. “But I’ve also learned that for me, it’s best to take things day-to-day, week-to-week, rather than looking too far down the road.”

Mysko recommends people recognize the pandemic is a long-haul event and that they should plan to continue virtual treatment, especially as winter sets in. “The silver lining is that geography is no longer a barrier to treatment,” she pointed out. “Help is here and accessible.”

For her part, Parker said that going through the isolation and emotions of the pandemic have helped her build some resiliency. “I’ve learned how to deal with my emotions much better,” she said. “I’m proud of myself for the way I’m coping and feel encouraged moving forward.”

If you're struggling with an eating disorder and need help, information or resources, visit the NEDA website or call 1-800-931-2237. .