As the pandemic continues, more and more discussions have touched on its impact on our mental health. For those living with experiences like eating disorders, the stress and anxiety surrounding the unpredictability have the potential to cause a worsening of symptoms. MTL Blog spoke to Jérôme Tremblay, Quebec sexologist and spokesperson from Anorexie et Boulimie Québec (ANEB) about the experience of having an eating disorder during the pandemic.
ANEB is a non-profit that provides help to people experiencing all eating disorders (not just anorexia and bulimia), whether or not they have been formally diagnosed, as well as to their loved ones.
The organization provides services, such as the individual chat hotline (up 125% from last year), text (up 250%) and group chat (up 243%).
You can read our interview with Jérôme below.
How has the pandemic affected people with eating disorders?
I like to describe it as a "perfect storm" for eating disorders.
We're finding ourselves in a situation where we have no control over what's happening.
A big part of eating disorders is that they are control issues — feeling a lack of control in your life, so you take that back in your body.
The fact that we are in this situation where we get different information every day and we don't know when this pandemic will end, it of course extenuates the anxieties that a person with an eating disorder can list.
And that has an effect on exacerbating the eating disorder.
Plus the fact that we are isolated from others, our support systems, our friends, our families.
Eating disorders are a very lonely disease in that people tend to isolate themselves, so this isolation is really not helping because it doesn't give the excuse to see someone and talk about your issues. You find yourself being very alone.
In the first wave, we heard a lot about maximizing your time during this pandemic.
We saw a lot on social media about eating healthier and exercising, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
But it was so present that, for someone who is predisposed to have an eating disorder, that can trigger the obsessional factor in the disease.
"I have to do something productive, I have to do something like this person, I have no excuse," and other thoughts [like] that can occupy the mind.
What should people know about helping someone with an eating disorder?
Open the discussion by asking them how they feel.
Don't place too much of an emphasis on food or the patterns, themselves, but more on the emotions surrounding eating disorders.
If you recognize that someone is showing a drastic change in behaviour, like isolating themselves, feeling a little bit sad or even starting to go on a strict diet out of the blue, let them know that you're there for them and listen to them.
And let them know that there are resources for them to get help when they are ready to seek it.
But the most important thing is to let them know that you are there whenever they feel comfortable to come and talk to you.
What are some of the realities of eating disorders that many don't know/see?
A lot of people have this image of eating disorders: The stereotype that it's a desire to be thin or beautiful.
But it's so much more than that. And sometimes it's not even that at all.
We compare it to alcoholism a lot in that it's a way to express the distress by the eating patterns or behaviours.
What people usually don't know is how much suffering someone with an eating disorder has.
At the same time, it's so different than substance abuse because we can't take food or that "trigger" away from you.
Instead, you have to learn to have a healthy relationship with food and your body.
It's still so taboo to talk about. Once you add the food factor to the discussion, it's like people are walking on eggshells. We have so many different values and opinions when we talk about nutrition, in general.
With eating disorders, we see people tend to be very uncomfortable with the topic and we encourage people to see over that — it's not what the person is or is not eating. It's about what they feel inside.
Answers have been edited for clarity.
This article's cover photo was used for illustrative purposes only.