The impact of isolation on people with a mental illness, in particular, eating disorders.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for us all, but particularly for those with eating disorders.
Recurrent lock downs, limited access to food and support groups, social isolation and the unknown of the future has created a perfect storm for those with eating disorders. A recent study by the International Journal of Eating Disorders identified that those with Anorexia Nervosa reported a 62-69% increase in restrictive eating and expressed concern around limited access to food specified on their meal plans. Those with Bulimia Nervosa and Binge-Eating Disorder reported an increase in binge episodes, as well as greater urges to binge. The subjects also reported an increase in anxiety symptoms since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sadly diet culture has capitalised on COVID-19 which has seen an increased exposure to unhelpful messages on social media about how to “avoid gaining the COVID-10kg” and “how to curb emotional eating”.
Staying connected has been more difficult during lockdown, making it less likely for people to reach out for support and engage in adaptive coping strategies. To stay connected, start by reaching out to the people you feel closest to and to professionals for support.
Warning signs to look out for in yourself or a loved one
Signs and symptoms will vary across people and the different types of eating disorders. Some common signs of an eating disorder are outlined below.
Emotional and behavioural signs and symptoms:
- Behaviours aimed at weight loss, dieting, and controlling food intake
- Fixation on weight, food, calories, carbohydrates, fat, and diets
- Refusal to eat certain foods, restricting whole food groups
- Appearing uncomfortable eating around others
- Food rituals (e.g. eats only a particular food or food group, excessive chewing)
- Skipping meals or reducing the size of regular meals
- Any new practices with food or fad diets, including cutting out entire food groups (e.g. carbs, dairy)
- Withdrawal from usual friends and activities
- Extreme concern with body size, weight and shape
- Frequent body checking
- Extreme mood swings
Physical signs and symptoms:
- Fluctuations in weight
- Stomach cramps and gastrointestinal symptoms (gas, bloating, constipation, acid reflux)
- Menstrual irregularities or absence of period
- Difficulties concentrating
- Abnormal blood test results
- Dizziness, especially upon standing
- Feeling cold all the time
- Sleep problems
- Dental problems, such as enamel erosion, cavities, and tooth sensitivity
- Dry skin and hair, and brittle nails
- Fine hair on body
- Muscle weakness
- Poor wound healing
- Impaired immune functioning
Where to go for more information or support
If you are concerned that you or someone you are close to is struggling with an eating disorder, it is important to make an appointment with a health professional before symptoms progress further. You may also like to try the EDE-Q self-assessment tool by Inside Out (https://insideoutinstitute.org.au/assessment?started=true) to get a better understanding of what is going on and the treatment pathways available.
Make an appointment with a GP you feel comfortable with. Once a GP has made a diagnosis or has referred you to another health professional that has made a diagnosis, if you are eligible, they can provide you with a referral under an Eating Disorder Plan (EDP). This allows for 20 subsidised sessions with a dietitian and up to 40 subsidised sessions with a mental health clinician.
Get in touch with us or visit Eating Disorders Victoria, Inside Out, Headspace or The Butterfly Foundation for more information on accessing the support services you require.
This article was written by Emily McNeil, Accredited Practising Dietitian and OnCore Nutrition volunteer, with support of Lauren Atkins AdvAPD and Elise Den APD.