The changes to normal daily life can be particularly challenging for someone with an eating disorder or those already on the way to recovery. Routine and structure are vital, and with familiarity disrupted during the COVID-19 crisis, experts from the Priory – the largest independent provider of mental health services in the UK – have issued advice on how people can manage anxious thoughts and distance themselves from unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Georgia and Anna had both recently received intensive inpatient treatment for anorexia. Anna was treated at Priory Lifeworks in Woking.
As part of their recovery, they opted to extend their programmes at the ‘step-down’ clinic, delivered by therapists at Arthur House – an eating disorder service based in Wimbledon, South West London which provides a space for individuals to maintain a healthy relationship with food as they return to everyday life.
Then lockdown came, and day care services were forced to close for the safety of patients and staff.
Georgia explained that “trying to do it on my own during lockdown, being preyed on by my eating disorder was torture…so it was a life-changing decision to come back in. No-one deserves to be stuck at home with this illness all day.”
Anna felt she was not “ready to be independent in my meal planning or cooking or to face fear food alone”. She said; “Eating disorders love it when you’re alone….so it’s more important than ever to reach out for help.”
Within a few days, both returned to treatment and are now living at Arthur House and feeling positive about their recovery journey during these exceptional and uncertain times.
Both can be heard in full here;
Rebecca Jennings (MSc ANutr), Dietician at Priory’s Arthur House, says;
“It is so important for people recovering from an eating disorder at home during the coronavirus pandemic to set up a new daily routine, including elements of their previous schedule that they can still carry out.” She says; “You may not be attending school or work, activities and social events will be on pause, and appointments may not be happening as they usually do. Be proactive and empower yourself to look after your recovery – you deserve to stay well. Write out a daily structure, setting activities hour by hour.
“We understand implicitly that what you are going through is incredibly difficult, so it is important you are compassionate with yourselves.
“Navigating food shopping during this time may also be unsettling or difficult, particularly as some supermarkets have been running low on certain items, and the options on the shelves may be not as varied as we are used to. Queuing and self-distancing regulations are also making a trip to the shops a longer and generally more frustrating experience – for everyone.
“So, if you have an eating disorder or are recovering from an eating disorder, you may feel understandably nervous about whether you will be able to get your ‘safe foods’. Therefore, it may help to you to follow the so-called traffic light system. Before you go food shopping, break foods down into the following categories:
• Green – safe foods
• Amber – possible or manageable foods
• Red – very challenging foods
Rebecca continues; “If you are able to follow this when you go food shopping, you will be more prepared if something is out of stock. Where possible, take your time and work through the green items and move onto the amber foods if you need to. Once you get home from shopping, create a meal plan based on what you have been able to buy, which is the other way round to how you will have usually done things.
“Try to limit your time on news websites to 10-15 minutes per day, and focus on reputable outlets to get the latest updates. Also, remember that you have the power to mute and unfollow any social media accounts that are causing you to feel anxious.”
During the coronavirus outbreak, Priory’s team of eating disorder experts (psychologists, therapists and dieticians) are especially keen to reach out and help those who might be struggling. The following tips have been developed to help people look after themselves when everything feels as though it is out of control.
Access eating disorder support
If you are receiving treatment or therapy, this may now be happening over the phone or over a video call. Try to treat these sessions as you would a face-to-face meeting, giving it your undivided attention and engaging fully in the session.
Use the time to talk about any concerns that you have related to your eating, shape and weight, and also any coronavirus-related worries, so that you can work with your doctor or therapist to address them.
You may also want to join BEAT’s “The Sanctuary”, an online group that has been set up in response to the coronavirus outbreak. This is a safe space where you can talk through your concerns and get access to peer support.
Remember, even if you are physically distant from your support network at the moment or feel that you need to access a little more help, you are not alone. There are people available to support you.
Always take the time to eat:
Schedule your usual time for meals and snacks into your new daily routine. If you are a key worker, make sure that you take the time to eat during the day and evening – it is a priority.
Stopping yourself from becoming hungry can reduce the likelihood of you wanting to binge (and purge) if you suffer from bulimia or binge eating disorder (BED).
Organise time to socialise virtually:
Eating disorders thrive on isolation, so don’t give it that opportunity. Give someone a daily call, as hearing a human voice can be so much more comforting than reading words on a screen. Also, set up messaging groups with your friends or family if you haven’t done so already. You may want to set up a group video call once a week, or book in a daily meal & and chat for some support.
Remember that your family and friends care about you and want to support you – this is so important to your recovery, so don’t stay silent – reach out and speak out.
Enjoy self-care and relaxation:
Take the time to really look after yourself. Do things that you enjoy, which may be watching a movie, listening to a podcast, reading a book, writing in your journal or watching your favourite TV show. Try to stick to your usual self-care routine, so make sure that you get showered, get dressed, and clean your teeth. This can really help you to get in a good mind-set for the day.
And why not spend time on new or old hobbies? Try an activity that you can become really absorbed in, whether that is painting and drawing, playing a musical instrument or crafting. Focusing your attention on something that you enjoy can help to boost your mood and distract you from any anxious thoughts.
Schedule in moderate exercise:
You may be anxious about your lack of movement brought on by self-isolation. Remember, don’t let this affect what you eat – you don’t need to restrict your food to compensate.
Also, if you are feeling a huge amount of pressure to be fit or stay fit, it is important to be kind to yourself. Movement should be used to feel good and help our mental health, rather than to control the emotions we have around uncertain circumstances.
You may want to go for a short walk, spend time in the garden, or sit by an open window to get some fresh air. There are also many yoga or meditation apps and videos online. If you have been finding that social media accounts are triggering certain thoughts and feelings around exercise, now may be the time to mute or unfollow them.
Keep to regular wake-up and bed-times:
In your daily routine, write down the times you are going to get up in the morning, when you are going to wind down in the evening, and when you are going to go to bed. It is so important to maintain this routine, as it can stop you from feeling tired in the day, which can have a negative impact on your emotions.