Media Coverage

Having an eating disorder during coronavirus is like being ‘in a maze blindfolded’

August 13, 2020
Chicago Tribune
The International Journal of Eating Disorders recently published a study looking at the impact of the pandemic on people struggling with eating disorders. In this Chicago Tribune article, Ellen Astrachan-Fletcher, our Regional Clinical Director in Illinois, weighs in on the effects shes seeing and signs to watch out for during this isolating time.

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April 24 was an important date for Brianna Janicki. It’s the day she began recovery from anorexia.

The 19-year-old nursing student at the University of Wisconsin at Parkside said her eating disorder began last year when she got sick from a parasite after a trip abroad. While she was sick, she lost a lot of weight and had a restricted diet to reintroduce food to her system. She says her doctor told her to weigh herself every day to get her weight back to what it was before.

“I knew how to manipulate my weight to make myself smaller,” she says. “I was working out excessively. I was really watching what I ate. I would go to school and lie about what I was doing. My friends were concerned about me, but I denied it because I didn’t want to admit (I had a problem).”

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Janicki was sent to quarantine at her parents’ house in Naperville after her college campus closed. She says her parents noticed she wasn’t well, but she again denied there was a problem. Until April 24, when she broke down and admitted she needed to be in recovery for her eating disorder.

Janicki says having an eating disorder during this time has been a struggle. And she’s not alone. A study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders looked at the early impact of coronavirus. The study of 1,000 people from the United States and the Netherlands found that those with anorexia were restricting themselves more and feared being able to find foods consistent with their meal plan, while those with bulimia and binge eating disorder reported increases in their binge eating episodes and urges to binge.

Ellen Astrachan-Fletcher, a certified eating disorder specialist and regional clinical director of Eating Recovery Center in Illinois, says the study’s findings are similar to what she’s seen in patients during the pandemic.

“Absolutely, this is very consistent to what we are seeing, and I think that to a great degree,” she says. “The hardest component that’s been going on is isolation. They need connection for recovery. Connection is a huge component of mental well-being, if we don’t have connection we don’t do well.”

Janicki agrees and says it’s very easy to isolate from other people.

“When I first started recovery, I started talking to a dietitian over video chat,” she says. “Then I began doing therapy, and because it’s not the same as in-person treatment, it’s a lot easier to find loopholes. That’s the truth of it. My family and friends support me to help me not set back.”

Astrachan-Fletcher says people who exhibit more anorexic tendencies feel more comfortable isolating, and that is the complete opposite of what they need.

“When they are isolated, they don’t have support or accountability to keep those eating disordered thoughts away,” Astrachan-Fletcher says. “Without support, they think those thoughts are natural. This is why we encourage patients to virtually create a support group. Invite your friends for a virtual lunch, or call your parents and have them join for dinner. This is not for them to tell you what to eat, but to give you the support your body needs.”

Janicki says her relationship with food has gotten better, but eating still causes her anxiety. She says the real battle is separating her true thoughts from her eating disordered thoughts.

“Every single day, there is some thought that makes it hard,” Janicki says. “I have people who know how to recognize that from me. ... Sometimes it’s easy to get through, and sometimes it’s not. There is no way you can go through this alone. The way that I think about it is that I am in a maze blindfolded trying to get through this maze, and there are people around me without blindfolds helping me get through the maze.”

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These days, to help herself cope, Janicki says she journals and writes poetry to get her thoughts out in a creative way. She also practices kickboxing, not for exercise but for mental health and strength.

To spot disordered eating, Astrachan-Fletcher says to look for when the person prioritizes going for a workout over having a virtual date with friends or the person is rigidly trying to adhere to food rules.

“Other signs you’d see are agitation, depression and withdrawal,” Astrachan-Fletcher says. “If someone is struggling, reach out and connect. Share concern and encourage the person to recognize that they are not alone, even if they are sheltering in place alone.”

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