assorted sliced fruits in white ceramic bowl

Has Lockdown caused a rise in Eating Disorders?

The media is now full of stories of body transformation tales. Tiktok has been rife for months with young women sharing online what they are eating throughout the day and showing their reduced waists. Teenagers are mimicking the smoothie bowls they see these new found influences making and are receiving messages from them about what is a healthy diet. Many of us have been without our preferred form of exercise and the last three months of winter lockdown has taken its toll on us emotionally and physically.

So now the diet companies are rubbing their hands with glee. Working as a Counsellor, and someone who was bulimic as a teenager, I am concerned for the impact on young people. They have been trapped in their bedrooms with nothing but online schoolwork to do. Everything that enables them to thrive has been taken away from them. GCSES were cancelled, their A-levels are a confused mess. Should they bother going to Uni this September? They are all in the throes of grief having lost a fundamental year in their development.

When we feel overwhelmed with feelings and emotions and our lives feel out of control, we revert to doing things that make us feel we have some mastery. What we put in and out of our mouths is a way that we can feel in control. For teenagers, their clothes and apperance is of paramount importance. So add in the teenage pressure of wanting to look good, making friends, and stepping into their emerging sexuality. The idea which is constantly sold to them by the media of changing your body shape to assist you with this can be tempting.

Woman shows off her incredible 4st weight loss in viral TikTok video after  reining in 'mindless snacking'

How do Eating Disorders start?

What can often start as a desire to lose a few pounds can escalate into skipping meals. As the weight starts to drop off, you start to feel better about yourself. You may feel a sense of achievement and you attract positive comments from family and friends which encourages this behaviour. However, there can be a point when this tips and starts to move towards an eating disorder.

The lightheadedness felt from hunger becomes addictive and for many, the internal critical voice can get louder and louder – shaming you if you have detoured from your diet and eaten something you shouldn’t. This voice can become so persecutory it can take over and those suffering with anorexia feel beholden to it. Women I have worked with have shared that however horrible this voice is in their head, it is also company. Anorexia can start up when people are feeling lonely and isolated and it is as if this persecutory voice is a replacement for companionship and care.

For others, when they detour from their resticted diet, the shame can lead to Binge Eating and /or Bulimia. Over exercising or purging can seem like a quick and easy solution to getting rid of those extra calories you have eaten. Before long purging one meal can lead to purging all meals. If you are going to purge, you might as well eat all the foods you don’t allow yourself to. So biscuits, cake, ice cream can all be eaten and then purged. Again, this gives the illusion of control. You often feel deeply shamed about overeating, but then the relief comes with the purging and you feel back in control.

Eating Disorders often begin because people want to lose weight. Messages in the media and society are constantly telling us we will be happier, be accepted, and be succesful if we look a certain way. They become an addiction in a similar way to drugs and alcohol as a way for us to manage overwhelming emotions and feelings. Once an Eating Disorder takes a grip, it takes a lot of work and support to change our behaviour.

How to get support?

We have to learn to value ourselves and care for our bodies. To nourish ourselves with nutritious healthy foods and to find other ways to manage our difficult feelings and emotions. As a hidden bulimic sufferer myself for years, the shame prevented me from telling anyone. I had buried my emotions and was unaware I felt anything other than shame about being overweight. Working alongside an empathic Counsellor and processing these supressed emotions, enabled me to start caring for myself and my body.

If you are concerned about someone who is showing signs of rapid weight loss, be mindul of what may be going on beneath the surface. They may need support with the underlying feelings that are going on and may benefit from Counselling so they can share this with someone who understands how they are using their relationship with food as a way of managing their distress.

As well as working as a Counsellor, I run workshops and events throughout the year. If you would like to be kept informed of those, please leave your details below.

Exercise – Why do we really do it?

I passed a friend on the way back from the gym this morning at 7am.  She sent me a message saying, “I can’t believe you get up so early to go to Crossfit. “

I realise that to many it may seem like madness, some crazy fitness addiction, a punishing regime.  For many people, there is no doubt that it can become this and people can also use intensive exercise as a way to manage their anxiety and emotions. It can replace other addictions they may have used in the past such as drugs and alcohol, be part of an eating disorder and can work as a distraction or a form of control.  

I began running about 10 years ago and quickly noticed how dependent I became on it.  The run round the park became 5k, then 10k, a half marathon and then the Brighton Marathon.  Two weeks before I was due to run in the Brighton Marathon, I tore my calf muscle and was unable to take part.  I was gutted, but the hardest part of it all was being told that I couldn’t run for several months in order to give my calf the time it needed to heal. This took six months. I realised then how dependent I had become on running for my mental health.  How it had become an addiction that had helped me manage the difficulties in my marriage, my loss of self and my low self- esteem which had plummeted as a result of being a stay at home mum.  It meant that I didn’t have to focus on the lifestyle changes that I really needed to make, as each time I shut the front door I could leave all those worries behind me and get my fix of endorphins.  It was my substitute anti-depressant.  As a result of my injury, I had to take stock and work through all the emotional difficulties I was having at the time and make fundamental changes to the way I was living my life. I couldn’t run away from them any longer. Literally and metaphorically.

A few years later, a friend encouraged me to put my name into the ballot for the London Marathon.  Many people try year after year, so it was a complete surprise to get a place. This time I did it differently. I trained slowly and gently, listening to my body and what it needed.  When I had a twinge I rested, I had sports massages and a few weeks before the event, I took myself off to a yoga retreat. Running the London Marathon was one of the best days of my life. The atmosphere was electric, the sun was shinning and I crossed that finish line in disbelief.  I think I was in shock for a while.  Everything worked.  Nothing was injured.  I know that the reason I was able to do so was because of the way I had looked after my body and mind in a completely different way than I had those years earlier.  This time I wasn’t running away from anything or pounding the pavements in desperation to get that fix I needed to make my life more manageable.

Exercise for me now is incredibly important in maintaining my physical and mental health but is no longer the coping mechanism it once was. I go to Crossfit three times a week, regularly sea swim and try and do some yoga.  In this morning’s session, I lifted some weights whilst we swapped stories about what posters we had on our walls as teenagers (Pamela Anderson and bikes seemed to be a popular theme for the men). We discussed music and shared our nostalgia for gigs and the loss we feel with their absence at the moment. We discussed Freddie Flintoff and his documentary on Bulimia that was shown this week. The causes of Bulimia and how it is such a hidden illness for men, despite 1 in 4 sufferers being male.  We stretched. And we ate cake on the way out that someone had baked.

The physical fitness is important but equally as important for me is the connections, the laughs, the conversations, and spending time with a group of people in my community made up of different genders and ages that I may not mix with in other parts of my life.  As we all discovered in Lockdown, Social isolation has a huge negative impact on our mental health. Having an excuse to go and hang out with others regularly, check in how we are and discuss weekly topics under the guise that we are all only there to get fit, is an essential part of my self-care and wellbeing.