Ella Donnison: Eating Disorders and COVID-19 - The Hidden Pandemic

This story has a trigger warning

The pandemic has severely impacted on mental health issues. Ella Donnison discusses eating disorders under lockdown and her own experience over the last eighteen months. Trigger Warning: Contains references to eating disorders and exercise regimes

Small portion of food with a measuring tape and exercise weights

‘Just eat’. It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? But in reality, for many eating can be difficult, frightening, and overwhelming. When I think about the process of eating and the different stages involved – consumption, absorption, digestion – I feel that eating is anything other than ‘easy’. Eating seems to me difficult and a broader understanding that this is so might help to reduce stigma surrounding eating disorders (ED’s). Statements like ‘just eat’, whilst seemingly small and meaningless, can have a major detrimental impact to those struggling. Commenting on people’s appearance in relation to their weight is so damaging. I have been on the receiving end of both ends of the spectrum, too fat and too skinny. Sometimes it feels like you can never get the balance right and if you ever do it never seems to be sustainable.

This has never been more prominent than in the past year. Throughout COVID-19 eating disorders have become increasingly prevalent with doctors warning of a tsunami of pandemic ED’s. The pandemic dramatically changed our lives in ways which seemed unimaginable only a few weeks before. As we were all encouraged to stay home, we were blinded to the breeding ground we had created for the development of dangerous and unhealthy habits which caused an influx of ED’S and negatively affected mental health globally.

With nothing else to do, people began daily walking and trying out Joe Wicks fitness videos. Like me, many thought of the spare time we had at home as a way to improve our fitness and eat a bit healthier. In my experience, without conscious awareness this motivation to become fitter/healthier can quickly change into a rigid and inflexible mindset that can be extremely challenging to escape. ED’s have no age range. No gender. No ethnicity. They creep up unsuspectingly, indiscriminately choosing their victims. And in the pandemic, this increased with speed and power. I experienced a massive change in my eating and exercise habits during lockdown. I felt at a complete loss, I had nowhere to go and no one to see so I became intent on exercise. I remember waking up extremely early just so I would be able to get my exercise done in the day. 10,000 steps was my aim, but as lockdown was prolonged so was my step goal. I was completing 25,000 steps a day some days. I thought this would give me a sense of achievement and something to be proud of but instead it made me miserable, constantly tired, and exhausted. The food I was fuelling myself with was not enough for the activity I was doing. But no one saw this. I lost a lot of weight, but this wasn’t visible to people. After all, I didn’t see anyone and so no one saw the changes I was experiencing.

With nowhere to go and no one to see, food and exercise became a mechanism of control in a changed and unknown world in which I felt powerless. In retrospect it’s not surprising that rates of ED’s soared; help and support was hard to access, and people thought they had bigger things to worry about. ED’s are silent. Undetectable at first. We need better information and awareness. We need better services and interventions. Without these, ED’s are only set to rise. Recognising an eating disorder is difficult. I know this from my own experience. At the time what you are doing is rational and normal. My control over the small amount of food I allowed myself to eat was normal. It is only when you look back that you see how irrational the way you were living your life was. I recognise this now, but it is hard and it will continue to be hard.

As we come out of lockdown and rules and restrictions ease, ED’s need more attention again. Anxiety surrounding food can no longer be contained and expressed in the comfort of one’s own home. With friends inviting me out for lunch and liquid calories galore the thoughts surrounding weight and food are constantly on my mind. What some people see as an exciting time to spend catching up with friends, others including myself feels anxious about what to order on the menu. If anything good has come out of this pandemic, it is the recognition that communities surround us, and people want to help. We need to look out for others, be mindful of the words we use and remember a small statement of ‘just keep going’ can go a long way.

Related Stories

Gary Marshall: My story

Gary Marshall: My story

Do you ever think back to when you were young? The dreams and aspirations you had back then? What you...