How emerging from long isolation activates eating disorder risks

As parts of the country slowly reopen, one aspect of returning to normal during warmer weather is giving some self-isolated Canadians anxiety: the springtime “reveal.”

Typically, this season is a common source of concern for people with eating disorders, said Kyla Fox, a clinical therapist in Toronto who founded an eponymous eating disorder recovery centre.

“This would be the time of year that we would come out and layer off, de-robe and be differently exposed,” she told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday.

The COVID-19 pandemic is compounding that pre-existing anxiety.

“There’s even more heightened pressure that, when this pandemic actually comes to a close, we’re going to all have this reveal,” she said. “There’s a lot of anxiety for what that will actually mean for us physically. That’s activating a lot of pressure and fears around what we look like and our relationship with food.”

Food has been one of the most discussed aspects of self-isolation and quarantine during the pandemic: non-foodies are cooking for the first time, sourdough and banana bread are having their moment, and the phrase “COVID-15” was coined to refer to weight gains from snacking during isolation.

“Food is such a source of focus because there isn’t a whole lot else that we can be focusing on,” said Fox. 

Not only are we unable to turn our attention much beyond the kitchen and the couch, but our emotions are already heightened, which can exacerbate existing problems. 

“A lot of the reasons why people are turning to food is because they’re feeling so many things,” she said: fear, anxiety, a lack of control, uncertainty around when the pandemic will end, worries about job security, and the pressure of raising children while working from home are just some of those feelings.

“This is why eating disorder behaviour is so activated at this time, because so are our feelings,” said Fox.

Online mental health resources have increased in many parts of Canada, including at The Kyla Fox centre in Toronto. In Halifax, Eating Disorders Nova Scotia has seen the numbers of people reaching out for help online increase threefold. Executive Director Shaleen Jones told CTV News Atlantic that the pandemic has created a kind of “perfect storm” for worsening mental health.

“We’re finding that a lot of folks are really experiencing a lot of challenges during this time when their natural ways of coping are being taken away,” said Jones. “Anyone who is experiencing any kind of mental health challenges, certainly these times can exasperate the symptoms they might have.”

A sense of normalcy is key to combating the problem, suggested Fox. Here are some strategies that could help:

  • Avoid the urge to stay up late online shopping or streaming Netflix and go to bed at a reasonable hour and wake up at a normal hour.
  • Instead of grazing throughout the day, maintain structured mealtimes. If enforcing accountability is helpful, schedule mealtimes over video chat with someone who can help keep the structure in check.
  • Get some fresh air to clear your head.
  • Maintain good hygiene habits.

"Do all the things that you would do if life was happening, even though it’s happening differently," said Fox.

"Some element of structure and regulation, just as you would if things were normal." 

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