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Eating Disorders

How Stay-at-Home Orders Are Affecting Binge-Eating Behavior

People who struggle with compulsions to overeat may be struggling more now.

As the coronavirus continues to tear across the globe, most of us are stuck inside waiting it out until it’s safe again to resume our normal schedules—going to work, attending school, participating in preferred leisure activities, and engaging in our communities and neighborhoods.

As the normalcy we previously took for granted remains on hold, many stuck-at-home individuals across our nation, and abroad, are struggling. Not just with anxiety about the spread of the coronavirus (and its grave social and economic impact). But also with disorders that an otherwise normal routine may have helped mitigate in months prior. One such disorder is binge-eating disorder—estimated to afflict up to 2.8 million adults in the United States. Below, a closer look at the disorder’s symptoms and some suggestions for coping with them during a global crisis.

What Is Binge-Eating Disorder?

“Binge-eating disorder is characterized by regular episodes of eating excessive amounts of food followed by intense feelings of being out of control, disgust, embarrassment, self-loathing, guilt, and shame,” explains Amanda Fialk, Ph.D., LICSW, LCSW, partner and chief of clinical services at The Dorm, a treatment community for young adults ages 18–35. During a binge, people eat rapidly and consume more than they intend to. Often, someone with binge-eating disorder eats even when they are not hungry and continues to eat even after becoming uncomfortably full. Typically, binges occur when people are alone.

Source: Allie Smith/Unsplash
Source: Allie Smith/Unsplash

How Might Binge-Eating Disorder Be Made Worse By Stay-At-Home Orders?

“Because the COVID-19 crisis is relatively new to the United States, it is still too early to gather data exploring whether there has been an increase in binge episodes due to quarantine and shelter in place initiatives,” Fialk says. “We do know, however, that binges occur more in isolation and that eating disorders thrive in social isolation because less people are around to notice.”

Uncertainty and anxiety about the present and future coupled with negative mood states and other uncomfortable emotions created by being stuck inside with few distractions and little to no social contact don’t help either, she adds. Absent the closeness to supports many individuals struggling with binge-eating disorder had prior to the pandemic, it can feel for many like there are fewer buffers against triggers to binge—and more of those triggers mounting all at once. Fialk notes she has already seen an increase in reported binge-eating episodes among the clients she and her colleagues treat at The Dorm.

The national trend of stockpiling large quantities of food—many of which may be “fear foods” (or those foods that tend to trigger binges)—so as to limit necessary exits from home “is essentially forcing people with binge-eating disorder into their own most extreme exposure therapy,” Fialk says.

How to Cope With Binge-Eating Disorder When Stuck Inside

Though it may seem like we’re more alone than ever as the vast majority of us remain home as often as possible, there are actually even more accessible options for help and support than ever before—not to mention a number of accessible coping skills that can be practiced at home.

Reach out. Numerous therapists and dietitians specializing in binge-eating (and other food-related) disorders are currently providing services through telehealth. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) also boasts a range of online and virtual resources as well as a helpline to help you locate accessible and virtual treatment ASAP. NEDA also hosts daily 10-20 minute webinars and programs for families and individuals struggling with eating disorders, a resource list for free or low-cost eating disorder support services during the COVID19 crisis, as well as live, daily meal support every two hours starting at 8 a.m. EST via Instagram.

Additionally, folks in need can access virtual eating disorder support meetings on a daily basis via Eating Disorders Anonymous, while Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) offers online peer support, professional support, group and individual telehealth counseling and psychoeducation around binge-eating disorders.

Stay Regular. Fialk also underscores the importance of maintaining a routine despite being deprived of our usual ones, given stay-at-home orders. “People do better with structure. So create a routine that involves getting up, getting dressed, and doing something every day that feels productive.” That routine should include a structured meal plan—one ideally coordinated with a dietitian trained in eating disorders that includes three meals a day with two to three snacks evenly spaced in between, she adds. “Having a structured plan to prevent grazing helps regulate hunger and satiety cues—as well as blood sugar; reduces binge eating, prevents undereating, and manages your food supply in a way that physically nourishes you and keeps you emotionally satisfied.”

Channel your energy into a skill or hobby. If you’re finding that added free time is triggering binge behaviors, consider devoting some energy towards learning a new skill or hobby, Not only can this provide a distraction from negative thoughts and feelings as well as from inclinations to binge, but it can also foster more positive emotions and a sense of purpose. There are countless online resources that offer free video, audio, or written guidance on everything from upping your makeup game to learning how to knit and mastering a language. Start with a Google search for something you’ve always been curious to learn more about.

Stay connected. “Social distancing does not need to mean social isolation,” Fialk stresses. Don’t just text with people you consider supportive, she advises; call or video chat as well. Have a meal over Skype, Duo, Zoom, or another preferred video conference software with a friend. Watch a virtual movie or play a virtual board game with a friend.

Use mindfulness to mitigate binges. Binges—along with the tension and other negative emotions preceding and following them—often prevent us from being grounded in the present moment and aware of all that is around and inside of us. To help bring yourself back to reality—and stave off a binge before it begins, or staunch it once it's begun—Fialk recommends keying into your five senses. Wherever you are, take note of what you see, hear, smell, feel, or taste. You might also try the 5-4-3-2-1 sense exercise: taking a deep breath in and out and naming five things you can see. Take another inhalation and exhalation and name four things you can touch. Repeat with three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

“Some also find the skill ‘HALT the BS’ helpful,” Fialk adds. This entails “identifying when you feel an urge to go to food come up, checking to see if you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, Bored, or Stressed/Sad. Once you identify the underlying feeling, you can move towards a coping skill that addresses that,” rather than towards the urge to overeat.

Be kind to yourself. Most importantly, cut yourself some slack. (Especially considering our current economic and public health crises!) “If you eat something you didn't plan to, accept that it happened and move on. Don’t perpetuate the cycle by restricting. Instead, trust that you can get back on track with your next scheduled meal,” Fialk advises. “Remember: There is no such thing as a perfect recovery—we have to be ok with the gray area.”

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