Coronavirus and Eating Disorders: Gaining Control when There Is None

We’re all dealing with a lot of uncertainty these days. For anyone who has an eating disorder, or is in recovery, uncertainty will most likely hit you harder than others. Why is that? Because at the core of an eating disorder is the intense desire to control. Control the future, control emotions, control yourself, control others, and control your body. So now, when pretty much everything is out of control, your eating disorder voice might be sensing this, perking up, and feeling like it’s getting called back into action.

The coronavirus has removed or reduced control around: 

  • Work
  • School
  • Hobbies
  • Travel
  • Coping skills
  • Alone time
  • Finances
  • Schedule
  • Movement 
  • Health 
  • Connection with others
  • Food supply 
  • Future plans 

That’s a big list. No wonder eating disorder impulses are on the rise as a result of all of that loss of control. It can feel like your eating disorder has the answer to helping you feel better about that giant list by controlling food and your body. 

But is that really true? Was that ever true? Did your eating disorder ever really give you control? For me, it sure felt like I had more control over my life through food, but when I really took a step back and looked at it, my life had actually never been more out of control. 

School was going horribly because I had no time to study and I was tired all the time. All my friendships were gone because of the isolation caused by the eating disorder and the fear of being found out. My family relationships were strained because all we talked about were my food issues. My career options were limited because the eating disorder was controlling how much of my day needed to be dedicated to exercise. And I couldn’t be in a relationship because I was so unstable and my self worth was in the gutter.

My eating disorder was actually causing and perpetuating most of the chaos in my life. It wasn’t the answer at all. Rather, it was a huge part of the problem. The answer to things being more out of control is not adding on more control. That’s like trying to put out a fire by adding wood. In fact, I’m of the firm belief that you cannot control your body, no matter how hard you try with dieting and an eating disorder. There’s too much science behind dieting and restriction leading to weight gain, your body’s natural protection mechanisms around famine, and set point weight genetics. It really reinforces the long term uselessness of eating disorders ever giving you any of the control that it promised in the first place. 

You might be thinking, “Well if I don’t respond to losing control by trying to grasp onto control in other areas of my life, then what on earth do I do instead?” Under normal circumstances, the answer is either distraction or sitting with the uncomfortable emotion until it passes. This brings us to the crux of why the Coronavirus has been so hard on eating disorders — the normal distraction tools at this time are not an option. You can’t see your friends, go take a class, travel, engage in your favorite exercise, etc. We’re all left with just the option of sitting with our anxiety, sadness, anger, and trauma instead. And that’s hard! 

So here are some tips on how to weather the storm of your own emotions when you’re forced to sit with them:

  1. Journal about what you’re feeling, why, and how it manifests 
  2. Draw how you feel or what you’re afraid of
  3. Remind yourself that no feeling lasts forever 
  4. Call someone and talk about it 
  5. Take deep breaths when you feel a strong emotion to center you in the present 
  6. Name the emotion out loud when you notice it

Everyone with an eating disorder has a difficult time with emotional tolerance – particularly for anxiety. Does that mean you can’t handle your anxiety? No. It means you’re not used to sitting with it because you use your eating disorder as an escape from that feeling. We’re all going to have to practice feeling our feelings for the time being. And that’s okay! Because you know what? We’ll come out stronger on the other side. 


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