Radical Self-Love: Eating Disorder Recovery During the COVID Holiday Season

For some the holidays are a joyous time of year which comes with endless chances to come together, celebrate and share food. But for those with disordered eating or in recovery from eating disorders, all of these “celebrations” can be a minefield of triggers. 

Starting with Halloween and rolling through the New Year, America parades out all the food it has denied itself for a year. (Side Note: American culture has a disordered relationship with food due to its obsession with restriction and binging. We classically binge from Halloween ‘til the New Year then everyone goes on a diet as a resolution aka restriction). And for those who struggle with eating disorders, this tension is amplified ten fold because we are already working with our own restrictions, thoughts and beliefs about food, when the holidays turn up the volume. Especially, in the time of Covid since everyone is already taxed with thousands of other worries. 

Holidays can produce intensified feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety and tension with your families and friends. While there is no surefire way to make it through the holidays without these feelings, there are ways to better support yourself. 

 

 Ideas for Support:

  • Talk with your care team or mental health provider: It is a great way to develop a plan, discuss potential stressors and triggers and have a supportive ear. 
  •  Holidays aren’t all about food: This can be hard to remember, but we celebrate for many other reasons, try to shift the focus to other parts of the holidays you enjoy: seeing family and friends, signing, lights, and giving to others. 
  •  Decrease stress by adding structure: Structure is a great way to adhere to your recovery goals while still celebrating the holidays, especially if you currently have structured meal times. Make lists to limit time in the grocery store or out shopping.
  • Give yourself permission to eat: Sometimes I advise people to use Brene Brown’s trick of writing themselves a permission slip to hold in their pockets. 
  • Ask a family member or friend for support: If you get overwhelmed or start to panic, utilize this person for support. Share your structure with them, so they know the plan and can help with any deviations. Knowing you have someone in your corner can be a game changer. 
  • Avoid overbooking yourself: This is one place where Covid-19 might be a helpful ally, but know that there is such a thing as “zoom fatigue”. Lot’s of virtual contact can be draining and is missing the natural hormonal release of face-to-face interactions, so it is less rewarding to our brains. Save some time for you to continue or implement a regime of self-care. 

Finally, remember that an “ideal weight” doesn’t exist. Food isn’t good or bad. There is room for all foods in a healthy diet and your worth doesn’t depend on your weight or the size of your body. Your worth is inalienable. 

Holidays are meant to be celebrations of life and family, so how can you reframe thoughts and actions to make it feel like a true celebration? While food is a big part of them, it is not the only part of them. And these supports might prove to be so helpful, you can continue to use them year round. 

Do you need more support that you didn’t see in this blog? Comment below and I’ll reach out with more ideas! 


Empty Shelves: Disordered Eating during the Pandemic

Though many cities and towns have slowly begun to open up, almost nothing feels “normal”. This pandemic has pulled back the curtain and revealed just how delicate our infrastructure really is in America. Both our physical needs – supply chains, local government structures, the ability to provide struggling families with food, shelter and financial assistance. And our emotional needs – systems to support mental health for all populations in America. 

The daily onslaught of uncertainty, grief, financial instability, food scarcity, isolation, anger, and thousands of other emotions is traumatic. When so much is happening so fast, it is hard for our brains to cope. (Remember our brains didn’t evolve with the speed of scope of social media in mind). Our emotional stores and physical stores seemed to be running on empty. 

It is hard on a normal day in America where diet culture and diet talk runs rampant, to work through your relationship with food and body, but add in food scarcity, loss of routine and increasing anxiety and working through disordered eating seems impossible. Not to mention, the explosion of America’s troubled relationship with food and exercise on social media. Fatphobic fears of “gaining weight during quarantine” or the pressure to use every minute of every day at home to “do something productive”. (As if surviving a pandemic isn’t productive). 

All of this and the isolation of social distancing, is a perfect set up to develop or worsen a disordered relationship with food. People struggling with eating disorders before the pandemic already had these thoughts, ideas and fears playing on repeat in their minds. Now it looks like “proof” to our eating disorder selves that we were “right” to have all of these concerns. However, this is not true. Ratcheting up control of your food is a natural reaction to feeling a “loss of control”. 

So, how do you handle all of this? 

Connection is one of the best anecdotes. Connect with an eating disorder mental health professional. Connect with your family and friends in safe and responsible ways. Call people, write people, send smoke signals if you have to, but remember you are not alone in this. There are people who love you and want to support you, and they probably would benefit from your love and support too! 

Decrease your social media – or be really strategic. The more time we spend alone the more time we spend scrolling. However, algorithms don’t care about your mental health. They care about “clickability”, so your feed is curated to show you things they know you’ll click, watch and like (which is often things that reinforce our fears and anxieties). So, clean up your social stream or detox from it all together. Be conscious of what you like, watch or share because the platform will show you more of that. 

And if you take nothing else away from this please know you matter and you are not alone in this struggle. Millions of Americans, whether diagnosed with an eating disorder or not, are turning to disordered eating and disordered exercise habits to try and manage this traumatic event. Reach out, normalize and find someone you can talk to. 


Being different in a straight world: the issues contributing to eating disorders in the gay community

Author’s note: this is the third part of a four part series on how eating disorders affect unique populations.

 

Eating disorders can develop from feeling “not good enough” or “different than”.  Many people who are members of the homosexual community can go through stages of feeling different and “lesser than” the dominate heterosexual society and its standards.  Other issues related to eating disorder development include low self-esteem and feeling a lack of control over one’s life.  In the gay community, there is no control over your sexuality; you are who you are and that is a beautiful thing.  However, embracing the beauty of being in a sexual minority group can be extremely challenging and can contribute to feelings of low self-esteem.

Miles Cohen, MD wrote a poignant article about the causes of eating disorders in gay men.  He talks about the vulnerability of being gay in a straight world and undergoing the stressful process of coming out — a process that could reasonably elicit rejection from those who are less understanding of the gay lifestyle.  If friends or family are included in those who reject the gay person, this can lead to self-hatred and the desire to isolate and internalize the pain of not being accepted.  This is more commonly known as internalized homophobia.

Another aspect of the coming out process is yearning for acceptance from the members of the homosexual community which you want to join.  The task of accepting yourself for who you are — which may be something that has been hidden for decades — elicits so many emotions:  joy at feeling the freedom to be yourself, and anxiety/fear about being accepted by others for being your true self.  A reasonable fear is that relationships you feel very strongly about may change or be negatively affected by the revelation of one’s sexual identity.  A large aspect of expressing your true self comes in the form of physical appearance: looking a certain way to gain acceptance.  This is a strong underlying issue for eating disorders in every population, but when coupled with the intense experience and expectations of the coming out process, it can become an obsession.  Dr. Cohen’s article speaks about this in gay men specifically — how there is an intense need to look lean and svelte or strong and muscular to fit in with the stereotypes of the community.  Cohen states that “gay men condescend to other gay men if they are perceived as anything different than the stereotypic masculine ideal”, creating a cycle of continual body dissatisfaction and pressure to achieve unattainable bodies — leading very easily to eating disorder symptoms.

Studies have consistently found that the prevalence of eating disorders in gay men is more than twice the number of eating disorders in straight men.  New research continues to be conducted on this population — and as I was poring through articles, I had a hard time finding much information on eating disorders in the lesbian or transgender population.  This, it appears, is an area that warrants more attention.  I would propose, though, from my own thoughts in this issue, that eating disorders have a high prevalence in lesbian, bisexual, and transgender populations as well.  Trying to wrap one’s mind around gender stereotypes and how they shift and intensify when applied to the LGBT community is difficult since everyone is unique and has their own story.  But it appears that with the pressure to “come out” and yet also conform to societal expectations and look a certain way — let alone deal with the judgment that could be very hurtful and damaging during this process — it can be very tempting to engage in eating disorder behaviors as a way to manage emotional pain and control physical appearance.

Finding peace and acceptance within yourself is a challenge that all people with eating disorders must face when on the path to recovery.  There are unique components to this for all of us — family history, other mental health issues, histories of trauma, age, or feeling “different”.  This does not have to prohibit anyone from finding a true and lasting recovery, and the joy of recovering from an eating disorder can be intensified by coming out as you truly are and accepting all parts of yourself.  I admire greatly those who are faced with complex stories and who persevere towards the health and freedom that we all deserve.

Read more:  Gay men and eating disorders – through a filmmaker’s lens. This is an amazing first-person account.