The whole world is really going through something right now. Covid-19 is a scary illness and it’s no surprise that most of us are anxious about our health and our loved ones. The illness itself, of course, is only half the story. This pandemic comes with side effects for our economy and job security, for the food we can put on the table, and the very shape of our future as an interconnected, global community.
Uncertainty is very much the word of the moment. As an eating disorder survivor, I know first-hand how much uncertainty can fuck with you. When I’ve felt out of control in the past, my first impulse is to restrict what I’m eating, amp up my exercise, and impose a strict regimen of all-work, no-play activities to ensure I’m being as productive as I possibly can be.
You can probably guess how well that strategy works out for me, a human being who needs food and rest and play as a basic requirement to function physically and mentally…
Yet no matter how counterproductive I know my eating disorder is, in times of stress and anxiety I still feel myself reaching for those familiar coping mechanisms. And I’m not alone in this. I know that many of us who struggle with disordered eating are freaking out BIG TIME at the moment. I know that we feel completely overwhelmed when we walk into the supermarket and see empty shelves where our safe foods are supposed to be. I know that every minute of the day we’re conscious of being stuck inside the same rooms, unable to go for a walk or to the gym whenever we need to blow off some steam. I know that being unable to see friends, family and treatment teams is messing with our need for support.
We’re not wrong for feeling like this. We’re not silly or close-minded or selfish. So I’ve put together 9 tips that will hopefully help us to get these necessary things. Now, I’m not a therapist or registered nurse or support worker. But I have lived with anorexia for a bloody long time and by now I have a pretty good idea of what helps me and others who are going through the same stuff. Please feel free to share your own tips in the comments, the more the merrier!
9 self-care tips for coping with lockdown when you have an eating disorder
1. Get at least 7 hours sleep. Anxious thoughts thrive on sleep deprivation so this one is really key! Eating disorders can mess with your sleep pattern so I know this one is easier said than done. There are some great tips here that will help you get into a routine of winding down before bed and clearing your mind ready for sleep.
2. Eat everything on your meal plan, just like normal. It can be extremely tempting to restrict what you’re eating when life feels out of your control, and especially if you’re not able to do the same kinds of exercise you’d usually do. It might feel terrifying to stick to your meal plan, but trust me: you need to eat! Allowing the eating disorder to restrict what you eat now won’t help you in the long term. Remember that gaining weight is really ok and very understandable given the current circumstances. To help you keep fuelling your body and let go of some of that anxiety around gaining weight, I really recommend reading “Body Positive Power” by Megan Jayne Crabbe.
3. Try and do 10 minutes of meditation a day. Sitting still and “doing nothing” is really hard, I know! But it’s a super effective way of calming that racing mind. Carving out a regular time to meditate can be really useful: you could do it first thing in the morning, or last thing before you go to bed, or maybe on your lunch break. You can also do a further 10 minutes whenever you need it – I find meditation really helpful in recovering from a panic attack, for instance. Headspace is offering free meditations to help during this difficult time.
4. Ask for help when you feel overwhelmed. Just because this is a stressful time for others does not mean you’re not worthy of support with your very real, very valid mental illness. Reach out to your trusted loved ones and professionals where you can. If your treatment plan has been disturbed because of social distancing, there are some really great resources that you can still access from home. Better Help, for instance, offers online counselling at a lower rate than many private counsellors charge. Samaritans are always there to talk for free, about anything. There are also peer support sites where you can talk to and gain support from others who are going through the same thing, for instance Mind’s Elefriends community and Beat’s online support groups.
5. Do at least 1 fun activity per day that isn’t “productive”. Now more than ever, rest and play are crucial. Allow yourself to wind down, even for half an hour, by doing something you love to do just because it makes your heart happy! Read a book, watch a trashy TV show, play a video game, listen to a hilarious podcast – anything goes, because there are no rule about what you “should” do to relax.
6. Engage in joyful movement that isn’t about punishing yourself for eating. Exercise is important, we all know this. BUT that doesn’t mean you should be using it to compensate for what you’ve eaten, or to maintain a particular body shape, or to lose weight. Right now none of those things will serve you; they will only make you more anxious, and they’ll set your recovery back in the long term. Find a kind of exercise that makes you feel good and that you actually want to do – if you don’t actually want to do something and you’re just doing it because you “should”, don’t do it!! Personally I find blasting my favourite songs super loud and jumping around like I’m in some hyperactive music video is the definition of joyful movement for me. I highly recommend it.
7. Unfollow social media accounts who trigger you – yes, even if they’re your friends! Social media can be really helpful and it can also be a cesspit of Kardashian-endorsed laxative teas and Facetuned mirror selfies. You are 100% allowed to unfollow anyone who posts things that make you feel worse about yourself. If you don’t want to flat out unfollow your mates, on Instagram you can temporarily restrict what you see from them.
8. Make a habit of writing down one good thing that happened every single day. It can be big, small, mundane or extraordinary: just record one good thing. This is a really simple practice of gratitude that will help restore balance to your anxious brain. We so easily see what’s wrong, but we rarely take time to say “actually this was awesome”. You could write your good things on scraps of paper that you put into a jar, or start a post-it collage of good things on your wardrobe or mirror or fridge. If you want to deepen your practice, you could even start a gratitude journal.
9. Celebrate when you don’t act on your triggers! This is THE most important practice on this list I think. Whenever you ignore a trigger, your eating disorder is going to be PISSED OFF. It might make you feel awful, or like you need to “compensate” later. For me, whenever I ignore the urge to exercise or actively choose to eat cake, my brain launches into a tirade of self-abuse that can quickly spiral into guilt and shame. An effective way I’ve found to counteract those spirals is to reframe the situation and celebrate what I’ve achieved for my recovery, wellbeing, and long term happiness by ignoring a trigger or compulsion. You could do this in really simple ways: by texting someone you trust to congratulate you on your success, or by putting a fun sticker in your journal, or by buying yourself some flowers. Whatever you do, celebrate in a way that reminds you that you’re awesome and you’re on the right track.
I’ve put together a bingo card that will help you celebrate when you take care of yourself, because self-care is hard work when you’re battling a mental illness and it’s important to celebrate!