Five ways that 2020 impacted eating disorders

Hands up who had a great 2020?

…that’s a collective no-one then.

It’s been a unique year full of challenges and uncertainty. The word ‘unprecedented’ has now lost all meaning.

When we stayed up until midnight to welcome in 2020, could anyone have predicted what was in store for us all? Certainly not me.

Without a doubt, it’s been a terribly difficult 12 months for anybody with a mental health condition as fear and anxiety swept the world, causing even the hardiest of characters to wobble. Those with eating disorders certainly weren’t exempt.

It’s been the perfect storm for both those in recovery and ones who manage their ED unaided. A pressure cooker with all of the right ingredients to wreak havoc!

Each individual sufferer will know which elements of lockdown caused them the most difficulty, but on reflection, I think the following five tripped me up the most…

Stockpiling

Nothing induced panic like fearing my ‘safe foods’ would be unavailable.

Rice, pasta and tinned goods are staples of my daily trusted edibles and unfortunately also popular amongst the stockpilers.

Going food shopping is stressful enough without worrying about my safety items being out of stock and I would feel apprehensive about finding appropriate alternatives to satisfy my needs. Similarly, when we were told to only visit our local supermarkets, I missed the foods I usually bought from other shops further afield. A friend was kind enough to post some to me as she lived closer to those stores than I did. What a bonkers time!

However, I coped. I built those alternative foods into my daily plan and hardly bat an eyelid about them anymore. It’s funny how something so initially scary can turn out to be absolutely fine.

Nothing to lift mood

I don’t know about you, but when I feel like my ED voice is in the driving seat, it helps me to go out and take my mind off it.

I try to socialise more, I make an effort to say ‘yes’ to invitations to do things (rather than politely decline as per) and attempt to make myself feel positive and worthy in other ways.

It was impossible to do that for several months of 2020 – even illegal at times! I felt the effect of losing those social distractions and lifting my mood by spending time with people I love. It helps you to see the world outside your own bubble and get a broader perspective to keep your worries in proportion.

I felt that without those comforts, the demon voices shouted louder and I had more time to ruminate on my fears, food choices and weight. Not ideal.

Lack of control

It is common for people with eating disorders to feel they need a sense of control over something, namely their shape, food intake and exercise levels. This overwhelming instinct usually kicks in when there are elements of our lives we feel powerless over or that seem much bigger than we are.

Throwing a highly contagious, novel virus that is wreaking havoc all over the world and killing people in their thousands creates a breeding ground for those out of control feelings to run riot.

I found myself becoming even more obsessive over daily exercise totals and calories as the result of little else being within my circle of things I could ‘sort’. Not properly anyway.

My therapist did some work with me on the locus of control – a tool that demonstrates what is in your reach to have control over and what isn’t, and it really helped. I actually learnt I could control more elements of life than I first realised and was able to let go of those other things more as a result. It’s worth a google!

Restricted access to support

As I’ve said in previous posts, I have a fantastic therapist and I rely on her a great deal.

I’ve often told her that she is like a ‘fixing machine’ and that my chaotic, irrational, disordered thoughts and worries tumble out of me and into her much more logical way of thinking. She literally transforms and retrains my brain and I’ve improved so much as a result of my appointments with her. She’s quite remarkable.

It’s the great relationship we have that made it so tough to lose touch a little this year when arguably more support than ever was needed. I was fortunate to have phone calls and the odd socially distanced, face-to-face appointment in the summer but it hasn’t been the same and I feel progress has stalled somewhat as a result. I’m hopeful that some regularity can resume when the vaccine is rolled out.

Fear

When you’re living in near constant fear, it can feel pretty hard to focus on recovery and stamping out disordered behaviours. Eating difficulties commonly manifest as a coping strategy and we’ve all needed lots of those this year!

I’d have days when my anxieties and worries were so huge, I couldn’t have eaten if you’d have paid me. I also felt that I often wanted to eat but my thoughts were so negative I couldn’t allow myself to. It was quite hard to navigate my way through such uncertainty at times. I have to be in the right head space to eat properly and on very few occasions this year was that possible.

With any luck, 2021 will provide more hope and an exit strategy from the hardship of the pandemic.

I’m sending lots of positive vibes and good wishes to everyone reading this. I hope you’re well and finding ways to self-care at this turbulent time.

G x

Coping with Christmas

Anyone who experiences a mental health condition will know only too well how much the festive season exacerbates it.

The heightened sense of occasion causes anxiety, there’s a huge expectation to socialise more and many of those activities revolve around food which is challenging for those with eating disorders.

People can experience loneliness or find themselves forced to spend time with people who don’t understand them, leading them to feel alone. This can lead to depression and low mood.

It really isn’t the most wonderful time of the year for many.

I was gearing up to write a blog on how to cope with Christmas this month but had a sudden change of heart. It felt like a duplication of efforts.

About a month ago, the CEO of First Steps ED, a mental health and eating disorder charity in the Midlands, approached me to create a how-to guide for coping with the festivities. He asked me to generate relevant content and distribute to schools, colleges, universities and NHS organisations across the East Midlands, with the aim of helping young people and adults with the many challenges of Christmas. I was delighted to be trusted with such a worthwhile campaign that stood to benefit so many and make a difference.

I had plenty of ideas of what to include. There would have to be a section about food and eating, something surrounding relationships, feeling alone and managing financial and social pressures. I also wanted a section on resisting urges to conform to New Year’s Resolutions as well as distraction techniques and skills for carers.

It was quite a demanding task but I got there with the kind help of a few contributors and the results looks great!

I think the final version meets the objective wonderfully and will benefit thousands of readers across the region. It also ticks every box that I would have covered in my blog.

So, with that in mind – please take a look at the finished e-booklet here and as always, let me know what you think in the comments below. I really hope it helps you.

G x

The A-Z of eating disorders (part one)

Eating disorders are commonly defined as a group of psychological conditions characterised by abnormal and disturbed eating habits.  

Although the term ‘eating’ is in the name, these disorders are always about more than food. They’re complex mental health conditions that often require the intervention of medical and psychological experts to alter their course.

I have struggled at the hands of eating disorders over the past ten years and although my difficulties have evolved and manifested themselves in different ways, my issues are still quite prevalent.

So in the interest of raising awareness of these debilitating difficulties in an easily digestible and light hearted manner, I thought I’d present my A-Z of eating disorders…

A – Anxiety

Eating disorders are riddled with anxiety. Whether you already struggled with it before the ED or if your eating problems cause you great anxiety, the two are very closely linked and treatment will focus on ways to calm your mind and anxious thoughts.

B – Bloating

One of the trickiest elements to increasing food intake after periods of restriction is the challenging bloating. It feels uncomfortable, looks unsightly and makes you even more body conscious than you already are. I try to remind myself it’s very common when increasing consumption and doesn’t last forever. It’s also vital to note that no matter what my mind tells me, it isn’t fat. Bloating is not fat!

C – Calories

Sadly, very few eating disorders would be complete without a daily obsession with calories. It can take years of treatment and therapy to allow sufferers to eat intuitively and respond to natural hunger cues with zero regard for the calories that are in their meals. A key part of ED treatment is relinquishing control over calorie intake and working to a point whereby eating becomes instinctive rather than regimented.

D – Diet

I’ve heard it said that ‘diets are just socially acceptable eating disorders’. If your friend tells you they are dieting, you probably wouldn’t be alarmed, but if they said they felt they had an eating disorder, you’d have a much bigger cause for concern. Diets can commonly lead to disordered eating habits so try to remember that if the dieting behaviours are the same as the ED behaviours, it is not just a diet. It’s a disorder.

E – Exercise

Exercise and restrictive eating often go hand in hand when suffering with an ED. For me, it’s about controlling my size and weight with food and exercise routines that mean I am burning off a high percentage of what I take in each day. I have an app on my phone to tell me how many calories I have burned and that makes me feel ‘better’ although can be quite obsessive to check. Therapy often tackles this level of compulsive exercise by slowly reducing it and understanding the cognitions behind the urges.

Young woman running in wood, training and exercising for trail run marathon endurance in morning sunrise.

F – Family and friends

Those around you play a massive part in your recovery process. I’m very lucky as my family and friends are incredibly supportive and I know I can rely on them to help me both practically and emotionally. My immediate family are caring and loving and would do anything they could to make me feel better. I also have a strong circle of friends who are understanding of my difficulties whilst challenging me in equal measure. An absolute lifeline!

G – Guilt

There is an incredibly high level of near-constant guilt involved in day to day life with an eating disorder. I feel terribly guilty when I eat what I deem to be too much, or more than I would normally have, and that can lead me to be restrictive for the next few days, or to over exercise to compensate. I will then usually feel equally as guilty for giving in to the urges and not tackling them for the good of recovery. It’s a relentless battle, and pretty exhausting.

H – Hope

No matter how tough the going gets, you must remain as hopeful as possible that much better times are just around the corner. I still consider myself to be a long way from fully recovered, but when I look back at far I have come it’s astonishing to think of all of the improvements I’ve made. I have learned so much about myself and it’s helped me to rebuild time and time again. Keep going!

I – Insecurity

Eating disorder sufferers are often riddled with insecurity and have low self esteem and confidence. Feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness are very commonplace and that is all too often where eating disorders begin. One of the best ways to combat this is to remind myself of all of my achievements, the compliments I’ve received in my life and the impact I’ve had on those around me.

J – Justification

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to justify myself and my actions over the last few years. Whether that’s trying to describe my behaviours to my family who weren’t familiar with ED thoughts and feelings, or worming my way out of trouble with therapists who saw straight through my excuses…I’ve had a lot of explaining to do!

A plate of food being consumed in a restaurant.

K – Kindness

They say a little kindness goes a long way…and they’re not wrong. The only way to recover from an eating disorder is to be kind to yourself and accept kindness from others. That means forgiving your own mistakes, accepting your struggles but resolving to push through them anyway and being patient with yourself. Similarly, when others show you care and compassion, remember to accept it with grace and use it to your advantage.

L – Laxatives

Not a very pleasant topic – and certainly not an easy one to discuss, but alas most of us have had experiences with laxatives. They weren’t usually very positive experiences either! My therapist told me that they don’t actually lead to weight loss or make you lighter, but for me the reliance on them was to do with feeling empty. I had a desire to feel internally empty each day and if my body wasn’t able to do that naturally – because let’s face when you mess with your eating you play havoc with your digestion too, I needed something to make that happen! I’m less reliant now, but can’t go cold turkey just yet.

M – Measuring

Whether it’s measuring your food or body, eating disorders are massively consumed with various numbers and sizes. It’s common to measure amounts of food and calculate calories on a daily basis alongside a deep urge to step on the scales and weigh yourself too. True recovery lies in the freedom to eat and exercise intuitively with no regard for the numerical value of everything.

Come back next week for part two…